Police and Fire Officials Blast Pension Bills

By: John Kennedy, The News Service of Florida
By: John Kennedy, The News Service of Florida


Police and fire union representatives filled a Senate workshop Friday to criticize a pair of bills dramatically overhauling public pensions in Florida, a key cost-saving plan pushed by Gov. Rick Scott and top lawmakers.

A couple dozen speakers generally blasted the legislation by Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, whose Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee rolled out the legislation (SB 1128, 1130) earlier this week.

Friday’s four-hour hearing was designed to gauge opinion of the measures. It was clearly divided, with union officials blasting the proposals and city commission representatives mostly endorsing Ring’s approach.

“I don’t think anyone can say we’re rushing this process through,” Ring said. “This is a critical issue.”

Under the legislation, new employees in both the Florida Retirement System and local pension plans would be required to join 401(k)-style investment plans, with the legislation clearly aimed at phasing-out traditional pension plans.

Base salary – no overtime or other compensation – would be used to determine an employee’s pension benefits under both city and state plans. The legislation affecting the FRS (SB 1130) also would require a still-to-be determined contribution from the plan’s 655,000 government employees, ending full state payments which have endured since 1974.

Ring acknowledged that not having a contribution level set, “creates a lot of angst.” But he said the contribution rate will be determined later – when the state budget is compiled and lawmakers look to close a more than $3.6 billion budget hole.

Scott has proposed a 5-percent employee contribution, which would save $1.3 billion.

But Steve Clelland, representing the Orlando Professional Firefighters union, told the Senate panel that lawmakers should not be revamping the standards for pension agreements negotiated with local governments.

“These are local plans,” Clelland said. “But if you do this, city officials will stand back and say `we didn’t do that – they did, the Legislature.’ But if collective bargaining still exists in Florida, I’m not sure you can even do that.”

Most of the union representatives urged lawmakers to leave local pensions alone, although Ring said financial obligations faced by cities was reaching a crisis.

“Every city is not in crisis,” said Jim Tolley, lobbyist for the Florida Professional Firefighters Association. “Some are in good shape.”

Kissimmee Mayor Jim Swan told the committee cities generally support help with easing pension benefits, but want to assure, “flexibility is given for us to negotiate pension benefits.”

The legislation eases requirements on municipalities that dollars accumulated under the insurance premium tax be used solely to cover enhanced pension benefits, a provision sought by the Florida League of Cities. Instead, the bill (SB 1128) lets cities deploy this money to ease liabilities in current pension plans.

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