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Tougher residency requirements looming for lawmakers

The top legal minds in the Florida Legislature took a stab Wednesday at answering the existential question of “What is home?”

General counsels for the House and Senate released a five-page memo that outlines how lawmakers can meet residency requirements in the future.

See memo here.

The opinion comes a day before Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, hold a news conference announcing their bills creating new residency requirements for candidates and public officers.

It’s an issue that comes up periodically during political campaigns when a candidate runs for a district they don’t actually live in. (It happens more than you think). That’s ok, according to Florida law, as long as they move into the correct district by Election Day.

In the past year, however, Latvala has pounced on the residency issue to spotlight the living situation of Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach. He contends she doesn’t live in her senate district. She says she does, and her voter registration backs her up.

Florida law is unclear on the topic. A 1947 Florida Supreme Court ruling says where a lawmaker resides is where they say they do. If so, voter registrations are the best indicators. And if that’s true, then all of Florida’s 160 lawmakers live in their district. In August, a survey by the Secretary of State determined that all of the lawmakers are registered to vote in the district they represent.

There’s a raft of case law in Florida that says voter registration isn’t enough and that a lawmaker’s residency should be where the lawmaker actually lives.

Last summer, doubts about where exactly Sachs and other lawmakers lived prompted Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford to recommend standards that could be followed to determine whether lawmakers are correctly disclosing where they live.

The opinion, written by Daniel Nordby, House General Counsel, and George Levesque, Senate General Counsel, says if the Legislature decides to legally define residency as the place where the lawmaker lives, there are several standards that can be useful in judging where the home actually is.

Does the lawmaker receive mail at that address? Does the lawmaker’s spouse and children live there? Is this address benefitting from the $50,000 homestead exemption?

“No single factor is dispositive in determining a person’s legal residence,” the memo stated. “Instead, all relevant factors should be assessed in the totality of the circumstances.”

So, basically, the opinion doesn’t really say exactly what factors must be considered to establish a residency. It only highlights those that should be if lawmakers pass a new residency requirement.

On Thursday, Latvala and Rodrigues will talk about that their proposed legislation at 11 a.m. Latvala hasn’t filed his bill yet, but Rodrigues did on Monday.

HB 495 would require candidates and public officers must declare their residencies where they live, not just where they say they live. It requires the building must be zoned residential. It lists the factors that may be considered in establishing whether the candidates or public officers are meeting the standard, including the address is the same one as the homestead exemption, where the spouse or family lives, the address listed on the tax returns or on a motor vehicle registration.

But the bill doesn’t require these factors as litmus tests for residency.

So it's still not clear how Florida will move any closer to a more precise residency requirement.