House Flips on Retiree Health Subsidy

By: Michael Peltier News Service of Florida | Posted: April 3, 2010 12:15 AM
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSSEE, April 1, 2010…. Democrats won a temporary battle, but ultimately were unable to prevent Republicans from voting to cut a monthly subsidy for state retirees in on Thursday.

The cut, if included in the final budget when the House appropriations bill passed Thursday is reconciled with one passed earlier this week by the Senate, would mean the loss of up to $150 a month that nearly 250,000 retired teachers, police and other government retirees get to help them pay for insurance. The cut would save the state $224 million.

Voting Thursday on a series of budget-related bills, the House at first stunned the Republican leadership when it voted 59-57 to preserve the subsidy. The vote went beyond the issue itself - it also threw the budget out of balance.

Democrats were aided by 15 Republicans who broke ranks with their leadership to reject the proposal (HB 5701), which would deprive a retiree with 30 years or more of public service of $1,800 a year. The payout, which is based on length of service, is $106 a month on average.

But Republicans, who overwhelmingly control the House, began immediately working to reverse the vote through their control of the chamber's rules. Following a half-hour recess, the House voted on a motion to reconsider the bill and took it back up. This time, four Republicans who voted against the measure, Reps. Ed Homan, R-Temple Terrace, Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, Paige Kreegal, R-Punta Gorda, and Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers, switched their votes.

That combined with three affirmative votes from Republican Reps .Sandy Adams, R-Oviedo, Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando and Kurt Kelly, R-Belleview – who were not on the floor for the first vote - tipped the balance in favor of the cut, with the bill then passing 63-56. Rep. Baxter Troutman, R-Winter Haven, switched his vote from yes to no.

“Several members I think in the heat of the moment, some said they pressed the wrong button, others said they didn’t mean to vote against it,” said House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Boca Raton.  “We’re going to work this out in conference.”

But Democrats couldn't contain their glee, and planned to try to make a campaign issue of the vote.

Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, said House Republicans who voted for the premium hike shot themselves in both feet. He noted that if the subsidy cut - which isn't in the Senate budget - ends up not in the final bill, the vote against state retirees, who vote in large numbers, was politically unnecessary.

“They want to use that as a bargaining tool with the Senate?” Saunders said. “Good for them. We’ll use it as a campaign tool for us.”

Democrats were already doing that. Not long after the vote, a House Democratic spokesman likened the Republican position to increasing taxes on hard-working retirees, anathema to a GOP that prides itself on being anti-tax.

Two Republicans who held their ground in voting with Democrats against the cut, said retiree benefits are not the place to make political statements. They also questioned the wisdom of bringing the entire issue up for a vote.

“I thought we had enough money in reserves that we didn't have to go back to promises that were made to folks when they were hired,” said Rep. Greg Evers, R-Baker, whose Panhandle district is heavy with government retirees.

Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, said other budget cuts could have absorbed the costs associated with the subsidy. He also said leaders would likely drop the proposed cut in reconciling the two budgets.

“So why are you upsetting these people, balancing the budget on their backs when it's probably going to get fixed in conference anyway?” he said.

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