Are all government employees in Florida treated equal?
We’re about to find out in what promises to be a sequel to one of the biggest legislative showdowns last year: Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate Republicans like Jack Latvala who have strong union support.
Weatherford lost the dramatic first round last year, when a third of Senate Republicans joined Democrats in voting 22-18 against a bill that would have banned new state workers, teachers and county workers from joining the state’s $132 billion pension system. Instead, they would have been steered into private, 401(k)-style investment plans. Such a bill would have shifted the risk from taxpayers to workers.
Pension reform was a top priority for Weatherford last year. He’s of the belief that the $500 million used to shore up the Florida Retirement System is money better spent elsewhere. He believes that while it’s generally regarded as one of the more secure public pensions in the nation, it’s doomed to fail one of these days. He share this belief with two entities -- the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee libertarian think tank that promote similar beliefs. Weatherford’s father-in-law, former House Speaker Allan Bense, sits on the boards for both.
Weatherford vowed he would return with new legislation this year. On Thursday, he met with representatives from the Florida Professional Firefighters, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, Florida State Fraternal Order of Police and the Florida Sheriff’s Association to discuss the upcoming legislation.
Following that meeting, the union representatives walked across the hall for a 15-minute meeting with Senate President Don Gaetz.
What’s the deal? Where are the other union groups included in the Florida Retirement System that would like to know what’s being proposed?
Chances are they wouldn’t like what’s being considered: the exemption of those public safety, or “special risk,” employees from this year’s legislation. So while new teachers, county workers and state workers would be subject to the new rules, preventing them from getting the guaranteed returns they get now, new special risk employees would not.
Indeed, on Friday, Weatherford and Gaetz requested actuarial studies that would shape legislation excluding special risk employees, while including all other classes.
"Reforming our state pension system is important to the Florida House,” Weatherford said in a statement. “I have said since the end of last Session that I would bring forth another pension bill this year. The Legislature will submit different options to actuaries so that we can have accurate and transparent information on the impact of any changes to the system.”
So why the special treatment for law enforcement and firefighters?
“We are seeking input and we wanted to hear from the police and firefighters' unions,” Weatherford said. “There is a valid argument that they should be exempt."
Like he did last year, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, will try to pass a bill in the Senate that overhauls the state's pension system. (Not only do the two lawmakers hail from the same county, Pasco, Simpson actually employs Weatherford, paying him $31,500 in 2012 for a consulting job.)
It won’t be until the actuarial reports are done in about six weeks that we’ll have a clearer view of this year’s legislation on pension.
But Simpson said his legislation could end up allowing the special risk employees an exemption not afforded the other groups. And that preferential treatment is ok, he said.
“When I look at special risk, they are risking their lives, they’re getting killed to protect and serve,” Simpson said Friday. “That makes them different than the other employees. They are special risk, they risk their lives for us, that does make things different.”
Gaetz said there is no legislation yet and there may be no exclusions. He said the purpose of Thursday’s meeting was only to seek their input.
“I’m not committing myself to supporting any particular approach,” Gaetz said.
Lisa Henning, who attended the meeting as lobbyist for the FOP, said her group didn’t ask for the exemption and may still not support the legislation.
“I think the FRS is fine the way it is,” Henning said.
But the meetings smack of special treatment, said Latvala, who hasn’t seen any of the proposed legislation.
“It’s a separate and conquer strategy, obviously,” he said. “They take the groups that traditionally support Republicans and separate them from the other workers. If the idea is good enough for the other state employees, why isn’t it considered good enough for the special risk employees.”