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Politics

State Pension Reform Moves Through House Subcommitte

March 16, 2011 - 7:00pm

A bill requiring state employees to contribute to their own pension plans passed the House Government Operations Subcommittee Thursday afternoon on a party-lines vote.

With Gov. Rick Scott proposing that state employees contribute up to 5 percent of their salaries to the Florida Retirement System, Republicans in the House looked to push legislation similar to the governors plans. HB 1405, which was before the subcommittee, would enact Scotts call for the 5 percent contribution. The measure would establish an accrual rate for most state employees at 1.6 percent, though some public employees, such as law-enforcement and firefighters, would have higher accrual rates.

Pension reform is needed, insisted Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, who brought the bill to the subcommittee. It is being sponsored by Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne.

In her opening comments, Mayfield tried to clarify what the legislation actually did.

It does not apply to those who have already retired, said Mayfield. Benefits already earned are not affected by this bill.

The Republican majority on the subcommittee offered a series of 10 amendments that passed while Democrats asked questions and pointed out technical flaws in the legislation.

Democrats, led by Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth, Dwayne Taylor of Daytona Beach and Alan Williams of Tallahassee, attempted to slow down a series of amendments proposed by Rep. Marlene OToole, R-The Villages, which raised the years of service needed to be eligible for the Florida Retirement System (FRS), arguing that this would ensure that public safety would be negatively impacted as there would be older firefighters and police officers.

The amendment votes generally fell on party lines with the Republican majority moving them through. Democrats continued that line of attack during questioning with Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, pressing Mayfield to admit that she believed public safety would improve with firefighters and police officers retiring later. A measure from freshman Rep. Ana Rivas Logan, R-Miami, providing a cost of living adjustment in the FRS passed through the subcommittee without opposition.

Republicans insisted that taxpayers could not afford to provide for the FRS and that state employees needed to help contribute to their own retirements. Mayfield said that taxpayers could no longer afford to support the rich benefits of the FRS -- which led Clemens to ask if she considered the average retired state employee, who he said would make $16,000 a year, to have rich benefits.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, opened the meeting to public testimony.

Law enforcement officials, active as well as retired, spoke out against the legislation, arguing that it will lead to older police officers to the detriment of public safety. Leaders from firefighter organizations made similar arguments. Teachers spoke out against the measure, saying the changes would lead to teachers not staying in Florida for the long haul.

Kevin Watson of the Florida Educational Association also spoke out against the measure. Big changes here have big changes in peoples lives, said Watson, who argued that the House was ignoring individual salaries.

Watson told the subcommittee that teachers and education administrators were the largest shareholders in the FRS and broke down the numbers. Florida pays less than average during the working and pays less than average during the retirement years, insisted Watson. The FRS is sound and these changes are, in fact, unnecessary.

David Hart from the Florida Chamber of Commerce said his group was open to the measure and that pension reform was needed. He called for small tweaks in the system and that the Chamber would continue to work with the measure as it continued to go through the committee process.

Debate ensued with Democrats continuing to attack the measure.

You cannot take the 5 percent and balance the states budget, said Taylor, who insisted that the bill would undermine public safety.

Republicans defended the bill, arguing that it was a necessary choice.

Many states are bankrupt, noted Rep. Larry Ahern, R-St. Petersburg, who argued that Florida was one of the first states impacted by the recession and would be one of the last to emerge from it. Were making some very hard choices to protect the future of this fund.

The bill has also been penciled in to be taken up by the State Affairs Committee and the Appropriations Committee.

Reach Kevin Derby at kderby@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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