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Life support alert: For pension bills that attempt to whittle back benefits

This is the week we start the death watch for high profile, controversial and even good government bills that are running out of time. Top on our list today is a series of bills aimed at reining in the lucrative pension benefits of many police, fire and special risk employees. The bills, proposed by Rep. Juan Zapata, R-Miami, Rep. Tom Grady, R-Naples and Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, also revise the retirement plans for future state and local government employees.

Bennett’s bill is the only one to get a hearing but it was also watered down and amended when it came up today before the Senate Community Affairs Committee, which he chairs. Then, as dozens of firefighters and police sat in the crowded meeting room, it was postponed – some speculating that it’s because he didn’t have the votes.

Over in the House, Grady’s bill, which he had planned to amend to match Bennett’s amendment, didn’t get included on the list of bills scheduled to be on the agenda before Rep. Rob Schenck’s Governmental Affairs Policy Committee when it meets Wednesday and Thursday.

Bennett would require that future hires be given retirement plans that give benefits equal to the base salary for the last five years of employment but no longer include what they've earned in overtime, unused leave and other additions governments have agreed to add in the last several years. New hires would also be offered only defined contribution plans, not defined benefit plans, and cities and counties would have to report annually their pension fund liabilities and contributions.

Bennett was blunt about the turmoil these measures are facing.

“Anybody who wants to run for reelection never wants to go against the firefighters or the PBA,’’ he said. “Sometimes things that are politically correct are certainly not politically popular. But if you go back home if they get a pension plan that will fund them for the rest of their lives after only 30 years and at age 45. I think they would say no. Does their pension plan cover all their overtime? They would say no.’’

But, he admits, that while the rich benefits offered to many special risk employees are not popular, neither is thwarting them. “I’m hoping someday to run for Congress and it’s not going to be popular for me. But would they rather do that or bankrupt the cities and the state? We have to bring it more in line with what the private sector pays.’’

David Murrell of the Police Benevolent Association confirms this assessment.

“We’re keeping a list of who's naughty and nice,’’ he said of the session. “I call it my Santa Claus list.”

Meanwhile, Bennett said his bill will be back before the committee next week and he hopes his fellow legislators see things his way: “While it’s not popular, it’s something we have to do.”

While pension reform is hurting, effort to fund the pension plan are still alive. On Tuesday, the Houses' full budget committee approved raising state employer's share of the retirement plan $294 million and the county share $166 million to bridge the gap. They are also asking for another actuarial study for the fiscal year July 1, 2009 to July 1 2010, to determine if there is any remaining budget gap.