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Rick Scott, Republican Legislature Vindicated: Florida Supreme Court Upholds Pension Reforms

January 16, 2013 - 6:00pm

The Florida Supreme Court has upheld the Florida Legislatures controversial pension reforms of 2011, saying they do not violate public employees contract rights, do not constitute an unlawful act of eminent domain, and do not violate employees rights to collectively bargain.

The long-anticipated ruling, authored by Charlie Crist-appointee Justice Jorge Labarga, was released Thursday morning. Labarga was joined by Chief JusticeRicky Polston and Justices Barbara Pariente and Charles P. Canady. Justices R. Fred Lewis and James E.C. Perry authored dissents; Perrys was joined by Justice Peggy Quince.

We [have] recognized the authority of the Legislature to amend a retirement plan prospectively, so long as any benefits tied to service performed prior to the amendment date are not lost or impaired, Labarga wrote in his opinion.

I think this ruling shows that what we did was simply the right thing to do, Mike Haridopolos, who was Senate president at the time the Legislature passed the pension reforms, told Sunshine State News. Its very much a reflection of what is already happening in the private sector. We really believed in the philosophy that government benefits should not be superior to those enjoyed by the people in the private sector who actually pay the taxes. I felt it was a good policy and Im glad to see it was vindicated by the court. Its a good way to have more long-term predictability in our budgeting process.

The ruling is expected to save the state some $2 billion.

Legal challenges to the reforms had been brought by public employee unions, who naturally rued the courts decision.

"This decision is a disappointment for the employees but we respect the Supreme Courts decision we are a nation of laws," said Florida Police Benevolent Association President John Rivera. "Although we had a different perspective on addressing the financial challenges Florida faced, our members remain committed to working with the Legislature to resolve these challenging issues.

While I am still in the process of reviewing the Supreme Courts opinion in its entirety, I commend the Supreme Court for their thoughtful and timely review and appreciate their upholding of the Legislatures proper role in establishing pension policy and making budgetary decisions on behalf of the people who elect us,Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said in a statement. The changes made to the Florida Retirement System reflect the Legislatures efforts to maintain a sound retirement system for our hard-working state and local government employees, as well as the reality that Florida taxpayers can no longer bear the full cost of this benefit. Todays ruling validates the Legislatures sound policy judgment that public employees in Florida, like the public-sector employees in the vast majority of other states, should play a role in funding their retirement packages.

Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, who supported the contribution when it came before the committee in 2011, said the ruling is probably a relief for those on the Budget Committee.

Im pleased with the decision, Ive always been under the belief that people should pay into their own retirement. I dont believe it is a tax. Every state in the country does that.

Ive never seen a contract in front of me that says the state will hereby never ask you to contribute to your retirement. Ive been employed in businesses that have changed benefits. It happens every day.

On the surface, this appears to be a decisive victory for taxpayers, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said in his own statement. We are pleased the court has upheld our actions on pension reform.

Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry suggested the ruling constituted a vindication of Scotts administration.

Day in and day out, Governor Rick Scott is fighting to keep the cost of living low for Florida families and on fixing our state's underlying economic problems, and it's starting to pay off, Curry said in a statement. Thanks to Governor Scott, Florida has become a leading state for job creation in America, Florida's unemployment rate is lower than it has been in many years, [and] Florida's housing market is on the rebound.

Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, the House Democratic whip, said in a written statement, I am deeply disappointed by todays court decision that upholds what I consider a pension tax on public employees. The pension tax is harmful to our state and local workers and is another setback in efforts to maintain a quality workforce.

Public servants are among Floridas greatest assets. They are the school teachers who educate our children. They are the law enforcement officers who protect us. They are the corrections workers who keep us safe from criminals. They are the Floridians who help build roads and bridges, and they are the ones who play an important role in keeping the economy strong. The pension tax upheld by todays ruling is bad public policy.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce, on the other hand, one of the biggest believers in pension reform, cheered the justices' decision to uphold the law.

While were still reviewing the decision, Governor Rick Scott and the Legislature should be commended for their bold ideas to put public employee pension plans in line with those in the private sector and making Florida more competitive, said David Hart, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber. Todays decision could free up as much as $2 billion that can continue going to repairing our transportation and infrastructure, paying great teachers more, economic development and other areas.

Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews or at (954) 235-9116.

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