On July 8, 2010, Gov. Charlie Crist called for a special session July 20-23 for legislators to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to ban oil drilling near Florida's coasts.
Republican Marco Rubio, one of independent Crist's rival in the U.S. Senate race, immediately accused Crist of using the session for political gain.
Rubio wrote in a July 9 press release, "$120,000 will be spent by taxpayers on Charlie Crist's political photo-op special session."
Clearly, Crist will get news coverage including photo-ops out of the special session -- as will legislative leaders from both parties. But does Rubio have the dollar figure right?
Everyone we spoke to agrees it's hard to say, but $40,000 a day is the most common figure used. When Crist announced this session, The Palm Beach Post cited a $40,000 a day figure while the St. Petersburg Times wrote $50,000. Other articles simply stated "tens of thousands a day."
In the archives, we found that the $40,000 figure has been quoted for decades -- as early as 1983 in the Miami Herald and 1989 in the St. Petersburg Times. Is there no such thing as inflation when it comes to special sessions in Florida?
We asked the House and Senate for the bills from some recent special sessions, and we added up the average costs for both legislative bodies to get one average cost per day. The special session in early October 2007 on budget cuts and personal injury protection for motorists cost an average of $47,924.19 per day. Another session later in October 2007 (property tax cuts) cost an average of $45,329.64. A session in January 2009 (state budget) cost an average of $46,378.71 per day. The average for those three sessions was about $46,544 per day.
Then is $46,544 a good daily average? Not necessarily. The House and Senate spokespersons, the Division of Management Services and the Office for Legislative Services all caution that those averages are imprecise. For example, they include just travel, meals, hotels and per diem. Jill Chamberlin, spokesperson for the House, says the per-diem for special sessions is $80 a day. However, lawmakers can get reimbursements instead: up to $110 a day for hotel, up to $36 a day for meals, and travel at 44.5 cents per mile or the common airline fare. The OLS calculates the length of the session differently for each body depending on what they scheduled on their calendars each day.
The averages also don't include the cost of aides. If legislators want to bring an aide -- most don't for a brief special session -- that is paid for out of their district funds, which are also taxpayer dollars. Lawmakers may come into Tallahassee the day before the session or stay overnight when it ends, which affect the costs.
Chamberlin also notes that some special sessions include committee meetings instead of floor sessions that require full attendance, so the bean-counters try to separate those costs from the special-session costs. For example, a December 2009 session on transportation was mostly committee meetings so expenses associated with the session were low: an average of $22,105.31.
We contacted the Florida Department of Management Services to ask about electricity use and other routine building costs. Do they contribute to the cost of a special session? Not really, says Linda McDonald, DMS spokeswoman, in an e-mail. She explains that the lights and the staff are there year-round. The electric bill was higher in January 2009 for the special session on the budget than in January 2008, but McDonald blames higher rates, not the special session, for most of the increase.
There probably will be minimal additional costs for the Capitol Police, but Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokesman Mike Morrison said he couldn't speculate on the amount. The police provide security to the complex year round.
Pinpointing the average is not a simple task because there are so many variables, said Lisa Swindle, finance and accounting director for the Office of Legislative Services. But each time the OLS attempts to come up with an average, it is around $40,000, she said. Swindle said several years ago both the House and Senate appropriation bills allotted an additional $40,000 per day for each body for special sessions if they needed it, and that's likely why it's the most common figure used. She also says the one coming up will be "a true special session," without deducting cost of committee meetings, so we here at PolitiFact will update those costs when the session is over.
We asked for cost records of special sessions in the 1980s and 1990s to see why the $40,000 figure has stood up for so long. But the OLS says it doesn't have those records.
We asked Rubio's campaign where it got the $120,000 figure. Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos said the campaign had heard reports between $30,000 and $50,000 a day, and he cited a July 9 blog in the Orlando Sentinel. Even that blog states that Rubio's $120,000 figure "is probably low."
So where does that leave us?
When Crist announced the special session, Rubio pounced and accused him of creating a $120,000-taxpayer funded photo op for a four-day special session. Rubio was being conservative with his numbers, using the low-end of $30,000 for four days. We're going with actual average of $46,544 from three recent sessions, and adding a fudge factor for all those imprecise costs that nobody in Tallahassee seems able to pin down. Let's call it a minimum of $50,000 a day, and $200,000 if this session lasts four days. Rubio went with a logical but conservative estimate, so we rate this claim Mostly True.