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Senate budget takes hits to lowest wage workers

As details emerge in the Senate plan to cut retirement and salary benefits to save the state money, the Senate Budget committee chairman acknowledged the $1.1 billion in savings will hurt lower wage workers but, he said, he hopes they will be able to find a compromise to reduce the blow .

"Lower earning employees being overly burdened -- that's a legitimate issue,'' said Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales. "But when you take a layer off you have to take it off everybody."

The Senate budget jettisons a compromise proposal crafted by the Senate Government Oversight Committee that would have exempted from the salary cuts all workers in the Florida Retirement System who make $40,000 or less. Those making between $40,000 and $75,000 would have taken 2 percent salary cuts for their retirement and those making more than $75,000 would have faced 4 percent cuts.

Instead, the Senate unveiled a proposal that cuts 3 percent from all employee salaries and uses the money to offset the state contribution into the FRS. The bill also eliminates the traditional defined benefit plan for all but special risk workers; ends the deferred retirement program known as DROP and raises the retirement age for police, fire, parimedics and other public safety officers. Also, the cost-of-living adjustment will end for any service earned after this year, starting July 1. Anyone in FRS now will keep the COLA they have earned.

Alexander said that "before it's over" he hopes to find enough cost savings in other parts of the budget to restore some of the cuts to workers but noted, "it gets  to be pretty expensive in term of reducing the next reduction."

A parade of teachers, police and other public sector workers warned the change will hurt morale and local economies.

"Enough already," said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, the teacher's union. "People are frustrated...We are in the final days of preparation for the FCAT and you are destroying the moral of the people in this state who have brough it from 45th to 5th in the nation...We should not be balancing the budget on the back of the people of this state."

He warned: "The changes to the retirement system guarantees that we will be poor until the day we die."