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A year later, Weatherford and Latvala best of buds on pension overhaul

LatvalaweatherfordLast year, Sen. Jack Latvala led the Senate insurrection that upended a massive overhaul of Florida’s pension system, which had been one of the top priorities of Florida Speaker Will Weatherford.

"I've been telling Will for two or three months that he didn't have the votes over here. Now he sees it, black and white,” Latvala said minutes after Weatherford’s bill died in the Senate, 22-18.

But this year, the two have been fast friends. Not only did they pose in a March 18 selfie -- with the chummy Twitter caption of “a winning combination” -- but Latvala is sponsoring SB 1400, which would allow undocumented immigrant students to pay cheaper tuition rates, a top priority of Weatherford’s.

That experience of working on the immigrant tuition bill brought the two closer together, Latvala said, subsequently providing an opening on the pension issue.

“The speaker is a reasonable man,” Latvala said. “I have been encouraging him to look in some other direction than what he’s been trying (on pension).”

How will the two come together on the pension issue? Well, it’s not exactly clear yet, but there were some big developments this week that will play into it.

On Thursday, House Republican leadership delayed the long-awaited committee debut of this year’s House bill on pensions, which would prohibit all new employees, except for those in public safety, from enrolling in the state pension system and require them instead to enroll in private investment plans that don’t provide a guaranteed benefit.

Meanwhile, SB 1114 on pensions, sponsored by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, was scrapped. A study that was to provide an analysis of how the changes would affect the pension system wouldn’t be ready until April 21, Simpson said in Thursday letter to Senate President Don Gaetz. (It’s already been widely speculated Gov. Rick Scott didn’t want the study to be done in time for this year’s session.)

Instead, Simpson said, he wants to resurrect the legislation he was pushing last year -- SB 1392. While Weatherford’s bill was automatic -- new employees had no choice -- Simpson’s bill last year would have given most new employees nine months to decide between the state’s pension system and private investment plans. If they don’t pick, they default into the private investment plan.

While a study would be required to make sure that this plan is feasible, Simpson said he hopes to use the one that was conducted last year.

“I believe that the special study conducted last year may still be valid,” Simpson wrote Gaetz. “Or that updating the study from last year could be done relatively quickly allowing us to consider passage of this legislation this year.”

Latvala helped Simpson craft that bill, and he said he supports it 100 percent this year.

“It would not surprise me if I become a co-sponsor,” Latvala said.

He said he doesn’t worry about losing union support. He said most don’t object to the bill. The only quibble they have is the default provision, where employees who don’t choose a plan are steered into the 401(k)-style investment plan. But he said unions have nine months to educate their members and if employees don’t choose in that time, it’s their own fault.

“It’s up to them,” Latvala said.

But Robert Ascencio, president of the non-profit Florida Public Employees, which advocates for state workers, said he still opposes the measure.

“It’s a bad bill,” Ascensio said. “What about the employees without bargaining units? Who’s going to educate them? This is intended to erode or phase out the Florida Retirement System.”

When asked if he was working with Latvala to pass Simpson’s bill instead, Weatherford was non-committal.

"Senators Simpson and Latvala have worked very hard, and I appreciate their efforts to reform the Florida Pension System,” Weatherford said in a statement. “We look forward to bringing a pension bill forward again this year. I am optimistic that we will reach an agreement to help strengthen the fiscal future of our state."