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Weatherford's pension overhaul appears in jeopardy

With a little more than two weeks left in the Legislative session, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford’s plan to overhaul the state’s pension fund appears in doubt.

Since becoming Speaker last year, Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has declared pension overhaul one of his top goals. He said the Florida Retirement System’s pension fund, which has about 1 million members, is a “ticking time bomb” in the state’s finances.

But he’s had trouble convincing union groups, Democrats and some Senators of the urgency in revamping a $132 billion fund that is generally considered to be on safe fiscal ground.

On Wednesday, Weatherford met with Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-New Port Richey, to discuss the status of negotiations in the Senate. Simpson, who is sponsoring the Senate version of the pension overhaul, said afterward they were far from agreement.

“He said he prefers the House version,” Simpson said. Asked if Weatherford wants the House version of the bill, and not Simpson’s version, to be voted on in the Senate instead, Simpson said: “The speaker would like to see his bill passed.”

Simpson said Weatherford echoed what the sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, had told him earlier.

“They’re holding tight to their plan,” Simpson said Wednesday.”There’s no wink, no nod, no nothing.”

While this might be the usual haggling that goes on during the two chambers during session, the current loggerheads seems to be an odd place for this issue to be -- at least for now.

For one, it was a top priority for Weatherford. He championed HB 7011, which passed the House with unanimous support from Republicans in mid-March. The bill would prohibit state and local government workers hired after Jan. 1, 2014 from enrolling in the state’s pension system and direct them instead to 401(k)-style investment plans.

Another reason why it looked like a sure bet was that the Senate version of the pension overhaul bill, SB 1392, was sponsored by Weatherford’s boss, Simpson.

“Will had nothing to do with it,” Simpson said earlier this month when asked why he, out of 40 senators, was the sponsor of the bill that would help decide the fate of one of the top legislative goals of Weatherford, whom he pays about $30,000 a year to consult for his environmental company. “We’re dear friends. Make no mistake about our friendship. Me and Will will be friends long after this.”

Although different from the House version, Simpson’s bill was still a fundamental change in the state’s pension system, which has about 1 million current members. Rather than require new employees from enrolling in investment plans, it would only encourage them to do so. Employees who chose the investment plans, they would only contribute 2 percent of their salary toward retirement. Those enrolled in the pension system would still have to contribute 3 percent.

But despite Weatherford’s clout and his close ties to Simpson, the gap between the two appears to be wider than ever. Simpson’s bill won’t hit the Senate floor until next week, where even some Republican senators sound lukewarm about it.

Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, said he was concerned about how law enforcement and firefighters benefits might be changed under the legislation. He said he’s satisfied with how the pension system now provides for those workers.

“These people should not be worried about their families when they respond to a crisis,” Evers said. “Right now, I think the pension is very stable considering where the economy is. If it needs some tweaking, maybe now is the time to do it, but I don’t know that.”

Simpson tried to sound positive about the uncertainty of reaching an accord.

“This is my first time up here, I would say in the next week or 10 days, something will have to happen,” Simpson said. “Or, guess what happens? We stay with what we got. At the end of the day, I hope something happens.”

This is not the only issue on which Weatherford is holding the line with two and a half weeks left in the 60-day session. He has also insisted that the House's refusal to take federal money to expand Medicaid in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

Weatherford said there is more than enough time to settle both issues before the end of session on May 3 -- a 16-day period that he said was a "legislative lifetime" on Wednesday night.

"Things can go from pretty far apart to pretty close in two weeks," he told reporters after a day-long session on the floor.

Weatherford did say he wanted the House bill to be voted on in the Senate.

"We would love to see a vote of that bill in the Senate," Weatherford said. "We’re very proud of the product, we think it’s a great product that brings fiscal stability to the state. We of course hope the Senate gives it a chance and believe that there’s enough time that they can.”

Was he demanding a Senate floor vote on it?

"I never demand anything from the Senate," Weatherford said. Then, unprompted, he offered praise for the only man who could make that floor vote happen.

"Sen. President Gaetz has been a wonderful partner," Weatherford said. "I could not ask for a better partner. I don’t know how often the Speaker or the President speaks glowingly about the other partner in week seven of session, but I’m just here to tell you that Don Gaetz has been an honorable person to work with. His office has been tremendous. We’ve worked extremely well together. I believe that will happen in the next two and a half weeks.”

Tick tock, tick tock.