For the second year in a row, one of Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford’s top priorities, an overhaul of the state’s pension system failed on the Senate floor.
Last year, it was defeated in a 22-18 vote by Democrats and Republicans backed by unions. This year, the measure didn’t even get that far. After a series of legislative maneuvers showed that there was little support for it, the sponsor of SB 1114, decided to kill it prematurely with two days to go in the session.
“It’s dead,” said Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. “We’ve had enough debate on this. I think we’ve made our points on both sides. The wishes of the Senate were done today.”
It was an inauspicious end for what Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, had identified as one of the main goals he wanted to accomplish upon becoming Speaker in 2012. With his term to end this year, the 34-year-old termed out lawmaker must admit defeat on an issue that was a primary concern for a conservative base that includes the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity.
Weatherford, who heard the news of the bill’s demise before the unveiling of his official House portrait, conceded that the battle appeared done.
“For two years we’ve been trying to get a pension bill done, we’ve always known that it wasn’t going to be an easy lift,” Weatherford said. “Nothing is ever dead until Day 60 (of the Session, which is Friday) but there’s no question that the bill is probably in some pretty big trouble. When you try to take on big policy issues, you’re not going to be able to score on every single one, and so I’d be disappointed if the bill doesn’t pass, but I think overall we’re having a fantastic session.”
SB 1114 would have required only elected officials, except judges, to enroll in 401(k)-style investment plans that are already offered. But they would be prohibited from enrolling in the $135 billion pension plan, which provides a guaranteed benefit, unlike the private investment plans. All other employees would have nine months to choose between the two retirement plans. Those not making a choice would default into the private investment plans, which would reduce pension membership over time.
Simpson, who pays Weatherford about $32,000 as an environmental consultant in his private business, has sponsored a pension reform bill the last two years. Like Weatherford, Simpson says the pension is unsustainable over time and could bankrupt state finances, comparing it to Detroit. Weatherford says the situation is so dire that he says the pension to a “ticking time bomb” in state finances.
But the urgency of the measure has wanted the past few years as the stock market has brought higher returns to the pension plan, which is regarded as one of the better public plans in the nation. Even the sponsor of the House’s bill, Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said chances of the pension going bankrupt were remote and that the purpose of the measure instead was to provide employees a better choice for retirement.
But employees already have a choice between either plan, making the case for it difficult in the Senate. Democrats and several Republicans with large union constituencies questioned the need for it all.
Pointing out that the pension can’t go bankrupt unless 86 percent of state employees retire at the same time, Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, asked: “Short of a zombie apocalypse, what scenario would that ever happen?”
Senators had been flooded with calls from the members of the Florida Education Association Tuesday night and signs showed that they were ready to vote against it.
Before breaking for lunch, the Senate voted 21-15 against considering HB 7181, which combined the overhaul of the state's pension system and Florida's 500 municipal pension plans.
In the Senate, local pension reform is popular, and passed unanimously in a separate bill. Weatherford linked the two hoping to gain support for it in the Senate. Some legislative trickery briefly merged the two in the Senate on Wednesday when President Don Gaetz asked quickly for an amendment that would substitute the Senate bill for the House merged version.
After it passed on a voice vote, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, rushed to his microphone to ask for a reconsideration of the vote.
After some back-and-forth on Senate procedures, Gaetz and Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, agreed to Latvala's reconsideration of the vote. It passed 21-15, meaning the House bill was no longer accepted.
"We have to respect the process," Latvala said of the attempt to merge the two bills with little discussion. "We have rules, we need to respect them, you need to match up the bills before you can take up the House bill. That’s just the way it is."
After the Senate broke for lunch, Simpson said he will try to amend the local pension bill onto his state pension bill later this afternoon. His bill probably dies if the two aren't merged, he said.
"That's what we're going to try to do, to bring the local pension bill onto the Senate bill," Simpson said. "If that fails, then I think we probably failed."
But Simpson never brought it back up after talking with other senators.
“It’s done,” he said.