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Along party lines, House passes pension overhaul setting up a rematch with Senate


The Florida House passed a bill Friday that would overhaul the state and local pension systems, setting up a rematch between the Senate and Speaker Will Weatherford, who has one last shot at realizing one of his top priorities.

HB 7181 passed 74-44, along party lines, that would shrink the number of people enrolled in the state's $135 billion investment plan and steer new hires to private investment plans. For two years, Weatherford has been pushing for a reform of the state's retirement system, a cause championed by his core base: The Florida Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, the group founded by the libertarian billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

The Senate defeated Weatherford's attempt last year at pension reform, 22-18, and after prospects for a similar reform dimmed this session, Weatherford married the state pension bill with a more popular bill, one dealing with local pensions, in an attempt to pick off some Senate holdouts

Democrats and union groups who oppose Weatherford's attempts support the local pension reform, which would permit municipalities to reduce plan benefits in an attempt to shore up the finances of the plans. The state system, they argue, is fine and doesn't need any more tinkering after years in which lawmakers have reduced benefits for state employees and teachers.

"We have two bills combined because one bill could not stand on its own merit," said Rep. Victor Torres, D-Orlando. 

"It's another scheme to stiff our public worker's pension plan," said Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton. "We have a great, halthy solvent retirement system. Why are we focusing on a problem that doesn’t exist? Go pick someone else’s pocket."

But Republicans said it was a sensible merger.

"It’s wise policy," said Rep. Matthew Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres. "It’s not offensive at all to our front line workers."

 Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, has sponsored the local pension bill in the senate, and said he was frustrated by the merging of his bill with the less popular state retirement bill in the House. Weatherford made clear Thursday that he has purposefully tied the fate of the two together.

"Both issues are compelling and important," Weatherford said. "Local pension reform is important in the state of Florida, but so is state (Florida Retirement System) reform. Our reforms are moderate, they are, I think, cautious, they’re respecful of the people who are in the system, and they’re protective of the long-term stability of the state. If the members of the House and Senate want the local pension bill to pass, they should want a state FRS pension bill to pass, because they’re probably tied together."

But because of that merger, Ring's popular bill could end up dying as well. The Senate bill died last year with only 18 senators voting for it. It appears to have fewer votes this year.