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House Backs State Employees' Pension Reform on Party Lines Vote

April 6, 2011 - 6:00pm

The Florida House passed a reform measure to newly hired state employees' pensions Thursday, backing the measure on a 78-to-39 party lines vote.

The initial measure called for a 5 percent contribution, but the new version requires a 3 percent contribution. The bill that passed the House, which has the support of Gov. Rick Scott, would also terminate the state Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP) for new workers and would raise the retirement age from 62 to 65.

Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, the chairman of the Community and Military Affairs Subcommittee and the sponsor of the legislation, spent a large part of Wednesday afternoon on the House floor takingquestions on his proposal, which mandates that state employees place 3 percent of their salaries into the Florida Retirement System (FRS).

The representatives engaged in structured and limited debate, per an earlier agreement, with both sides getting 25 minutes to spar over the measure. Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, served as the floor manager for the Republicans while Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, managed the Democrats on the floor.

Workman opened the debate by focusing on the bill. It requires all state employees to contribute 3 percent to their pension plans, said Workman. Since 1975, the state has paid 100 percent of the costs of their workers pensions.

Workman maintained that as the state continues to struggle economically, the measure was needed.

We find ourselves in the unfortunate position of not being able to shoulder 100 percent of the burden, said Workman.

Democrats attacked the measure, just as they had in the committee process, labeling it a tax.

Now is not the time to be implementing more fees, replied Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Fort Lauderdale.

This is an income tax on the public employees at a time when they cannot afford it, agreed Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami.

Republicans stressed the reforms were needed to sustain the FRS -- and state spending -- in the long run.

This is an increasing burden that will become unsustainable, said Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, who insisted the measure would only impact new employees. It is not unreasonable for employees to make a 3 percent contribution.

Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood, fired back that the changes in DROP would impact current employees.

I dont want to hurt people, said Rep. Tom Goodson, R-Titusville, as he spoke in support of the bill. This bill will modernize the FRS and put it in better posture for the future.

As he had throughout the committee process, Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, who had been in the FRS during his decades as a firefighter, said that while he had problems with the bill, he would support it. Hooper said that he was bowing to reality and that the bill was needed to help the state in the long haul.

This 3 percent that employees will contribute, they will get back, said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, who took aim at the Democratic characterization of the measure as a tax.

This is a 3 percent cut in the take-home pay of state employees, said Rep. Michele Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, who said this would be less money flowing into Florida shops and businesses. This bill will cause job loss, not job increases.

Rep. Seth McKeel. R-Lakeland, praised Workmans proposal for not ending cost of living adjustments and not terminating future health subsidies for retirees -- as Scotts initial proposal called for. McKeel praised the measure as thoughtful and member driven. Noting that state employees had not received a raise since 2006, McKeel pointed out that the state has been paying more health insurance costs for those employees. Were not balancing the budget on the backs of anyone. Were balancing the budget -- and thats our job.

This bill is a solution in search of a problem, said freshman Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, who argued the FRS was not in trouble. The $700 million were going to save, thats not going to shore up the FRS were going to fill up our budget hole.

On behalf of the Democratic Party, Clemens said he was thanking Republicans who voted for the measure -- and therefore were backing a tax. As he had throughout the process, House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders of Key West maintained the bill was a state income tax.

For the first time in public history, this bill will impose a state income tax, said Saunders, who then raised a point of order, arguing that the mandatory contribution mentioned in the bill was unconstitutional. House Speaker Pro Tempore John Legg, R-Port Richey, moved the point of order to Rules Committee chairman Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, who rejected the point.

No aspect of government should be immune from cuts, said Workman in closing. We cannot afford to have any sacred cows.

Legg then moved to temporarily postpone the measure. The House then took up the various budget proposals before taking up the issue as they passed conforming bills readying to conference with the Senate over the budget.

Reach Kevin Derby at or at (850) 727-0859.

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