Senate Ed Budget Sparking New Battle on Pensions

By: Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida
By: Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 25, 2011 --

The Senate Education PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee forwarded a budget slashing per-student funding by 6.2 percent to the Senate Budget Committee, even as some members said they were uneasy with assumed cuts to spending on pensions for teachers.

Subcommittee Chairman David Simmons, R-Longwood, said the budget proposal included an average 3 percent contribution from state employees and changes to the cost-of-living adjustment for current employees would save $678 million in the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

With the retirement changes factored out, per-student spending would fall by almost 2.3 percent, which Simmons said was basically level funding for districts.

“When you’re talking about the Senate budget, it is essentially an even funding for last year’s except for the issue of the [Florida Retirement System],” Simmons said.

But some members were skittish about the specific number, even with Simmons’ assurance that it was merely a placeholder for now. The author of the Senate’s main proposal on pension reform questioned the idea of including the reduction in pensions in the budget that members reviewed Thursday.

“This should not have been in this budget,” said Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate.

Ring said his bill currently doesn’t deal with the cost-of-living adjustment, though it could be included in the Senate budget proposal instead of the pension measure.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, questioned the true motives behind the drive for pension reform. Dockery said she believed that the retirement changes were aimed more at shoring up the fund that pays for those benefits – not simply for saving money in the state spending plan.

“We’re not really strengthening the fund, we’re balancing the budget…. If we’re doing it to balance the budget, I’m not so sure that’s a legitimate reason,” she said.

The measure also drew criticism from teachers, including Michael Jon Littman -- who, along with his students, spoke with Simmons after the meeting. Littman, whose wife is also a teacher, said their income would be significantly cut by the pension changes.

“You guys may be pushing me into welfare, food stamps, whatever,” Littman told Simmons.

But Simmons said the contribution helped to preserve funding for classroom expenses in education. Simmons also said the smaller cut might allow school districts to avoid dismissing large numbers of teachers.

“I do not expect big layoffs or anything like that,” he said.

Littman didn’t sound satisfied after the meeting, questioning whether some of his students would follow through on their goal of becoming teachers given the changing economics of the profession.

“The bottom line is that we’re not some sort of statistic, we’re not some sort of peons, we’re not the others,” Littman said. “We are citizens of Florida.”


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