[UPDATE] Senate Moderates Florida Public Employee Pension Bill

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

[UPDATE] THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 7, 2011 -

New plans to ask state employees to contribute to their pensions and increase their contribution to their health insurance emerged from the Senate as lawmakers began debate Wednesday on a spending plan that some veteran legislators said was perhaps the toughest they had ever considered.

The Senate proposals marked the chamber’s latest efforts to tackle the fraught issues of employees’ share of the retirement and health costs, issues that have scrambled party lines and left lawmakers trying to craft measures balancing the politically palatable with the financially necessary in the face of a nearly $3.75 billion shortfall.

Both the Senate and the House, which also began considering its budget for the coming fiscal year on Wednesday, rely heavily on pension savings to help balance a spending plan that will likely end up costing somewhere between the $66.5 billion proposed by the House and the $69.8 billion blueprint outlined by the upper chamber.

A final vote in both chambers is expected Thursday, setting up efforts to reconcile the two plans before the May 6 end of the legislative session.

While the House spent much of the day swatting down Democratic amendments, the Senate spent part of more than nine hours on the floor stitching together a series of amendments to a proposal by Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, to overhaul the Florida Retirement System.

Wednesday’s changes brought the latest version of the Senate legislation closer to a proposal by Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, that had served as the chamber’s main pension plan until Alexander unveiled a new measure last week for the Budget Committee to consider.

At the time, Alexander asked committee members to trust him to come up with a more acceptable measure.

Under the latest plan crafted on the floor, employees would contribute 2 percent of their income up to $25,000; 4 percent of the next $25,000 of income; and 6 percent from any income above $50,000. The proposal would essentially match the 3 percent rate in Alexander’s plan for employees making $50,000, with those making less paying a smaller share of their income and those making more contributing a greater slice.

But senators clashed on an amendment from Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, that would have required elected officials enrolled in the plan to contribute 7 percent to their pensions.

Supporters of the amendment said it would demonstrate that lawmakers were going beyond simply sharing the pain of state employees.

“We better lead by example,” said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. “I know you didn’t come up here for a salary. ... If we are depending on this salary to take care of our families back home, we’re in the wrong business.”

Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, countered the measure would hit a wide swath of the elected officials far beyond the Capitol, some of whom make relatively modest incomes. She also said that lawmakers “work hard,” and that the measure was political pandering.

“It’s simply saying, ‘Look at what we’re doing. We’re paying 7 percent,’” Lynn said.

Gaetz withdrew the amendment but said he would bring back a version specifically targeting lawmaker’s pensions.

House members stayed with their version of the pension plan (HB 1405), calling for a flat 3 percent contribution from all employees. But Democrats hammered the plan, saying it amounted to a tax on state employees.

“It’s a compulsory payment,” said House Minority Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West.

Republicans brushed off the attack, saying that workers will eventually get the money they contribute to the pension plan back. “It’s not a tax,” Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne and the bill’s sponsor, said flatly.

The Senate also passed a revised version of a proposal by Alexander to ask some state employees to take on a larger share of their health insurance costs. The provision boosts the premium for family plans by $20 a month, to $200, and caps spending on the plan for the next budget year at $2 billion.

Supporters argued that the provision wouldn’t seriously curtail the benefits offered to employees and would simply bring some cost control to a generous plan for state workers.

“I think this is a simple, direct approach that says we’ll live within our means,” Alexander said.

But some lawmakers complained that it continued a pattern of asking the state’s workers to pick up the tab for the state’s difficult budget situation.

“If all we were asking of our public employees was to pay into their health care, that would be one thing,” said Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland. “But we’re asking them to have no raises for four years, to pay into their retirement, and to pay into their health care.”

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Tallahassee. FL - The Florida Senate has moderated a bill that would require public employees to contribute to the Florida Retirement System, now fully supported by taxpayers.

The chamber approved a tiered contribution system Wednesday
instead of requiring all workers to contribute 3 percent of their wages regardless of pay level as in a similar House bills.

The Senate bill now calls for contributions of 2 percent for the first $25,000 of pay, 4 percent for the next 25 percent and 6 percent for anything more.

Both chambers are set to vote Thursday on budget bills including
the retirement legislation.

The House is looking at a $66.5 billion appropriations bill. The Senate's version weighs in at $3.3 billion more than the House plan. That spread is due largely to accounting differences.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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