« Scott will skip event for first Cuban-American chief justice | Main | Gov. Rick Scott kicks journalists out of House chamber; practices for State of the State in private »

Weatherford's base shows up to give him boost before pension battle

Pushing pension reform has been no easy task for Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford in the last two years.

The Florida Senate narrowly defeated it last year. Now even Gov. Rick Scott seems to be losing interest.

Yet Weatherford persists, listing it at the top of his legislative agenda for this year’s session, which begins Tuesday.

A chief reason why Weatherford won’t let it drop, and potentially puts him on a collision course with Scott, was the throng of activists who were bussed in Monday afternoon by Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group founded by billionaire libertarian brothers David and Charles Koch.

A cause celebre with the group is the very overhaul Weatherford is pushing for Florida’s $135 billion pension system. Close it for new employees and steer them into private investment plans. Rather than having the taxpayer cover the shortfalls, make the employees responsible for any drops. It’s popular with small government groups and anti-tax organizations. It’s opposed by unions.

Clutching signs that read “Support Pension Reform Now”, the activists stood on the steps of the Capitol chanting “Will, Will, Will, Will” after Weatherford spelled out three main goals for the upcoming session: Tax cuts, school choice, and pension reform.

“We cannot continue to spend $500 million a year, year after year.” said Weatherford, 34, R-Wesley Chapel. “If we wait too long, the state of Florida will at some point find itself like California or Illinois where they raise taxes to bail out a broken pension fund.”

If Weatherford needed a shot of confidence, he got it from the cheering crowd.

“On this particular issue, Will Weatherford is leading the charge,” said Slade O’Brien, the Florida Director of Americans for Prosperity. “And that is the position we support. I would like pension reform to get done this year. It’s a looming problem.

But this year is a tricky one for Gov. Rick Scott, and the pension issue puts him at odds with Weatherford.

Scott is in reelection mode, and doesn’t want to antagonize teachers or state workers, who can make a difference in a tight election. Weatherford is leaving office at the end of the year because of term limits, so if he wants to leave a legacy (other than his staunch refusal of Medicaid expansion) there’s no better time than the present to push red-meat conservative issues like pension reform and school choice.

Once one of the biggest critics of the Florida Retirement System, Scott lauded its fiscal soundness in a report handed out to reporters on Jan. 29.

 At the time, Weatherford seemed caught off guard. When asked then about Scott's comments, Weatherford replied: "That's news to me."

Later it was learned that Gov. Rick Scott's administration quietly endangered a financial analysis needed to help justify an overhaul of the system, which is widely recognized as one of the healthier pension systems in the nation.

“One is going out, one has big a election,” O’Brien said. “There’s no doubt that makes a difference.”

It’s the role of Americans for Prosperity to pressure politicians and force the issue, O’Brien said. In November, the group financed a campaign against three Republican state senators, Charlie Dean of Inverness, Nancy Detert of Venice and Greg Evers of Baker, all three of whom voted against pension reform and school choice.

He said that campaign was as much for the three senators as it was for everyone else in the Legislature.

“Whether those three listened or not doesn’t matter as much as hopefully others did,” Slade said.

Once a darling of tea party groups like Americans for Prosperity, Scott has been eclipsed the last two years by Weatherford.

“Obviously, the Speaker’s timetable is now, and that’s the one we support,” Slade said. “I would imagine the (governor’s office) feels they have a longer time window to take this up. Someone like me would like to get it done now. So we’ll see>

Weatherford downplayed any differences between Scott and himself after his speech to the Americans for Prosperity activists.

“We’d love to have the governor’s public support but I think we respect the fact that he wants to sit back and wait and see what the bills actually look like,” Weatherford said. “I’ve got no problem with that.”