(News-Press.com) - A bill that would bring changes to the Florida Retirement System was approved by the House State Affairs Committee on a party-line vote Monday after it was combined with another bill on city pensions.
Democratic members of the committee complained that the FRS bill, opposed by Democrats and a number of unions, was coupled with the city-pension bill, which changes how tax revenues can be used to fund police and firefighter pension benefits and had bipartisan support.
"This is like merging or marrying a pit bull and a Chihuahua," said Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach. "And it's not going to work. This is an extremely bad bill now. You took something that was good and then you made it bad."
Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton and chairman of the committee, replied by saying pension reform is necessary at both the state and local levels. Boyd said the FRS proposal would save the state $26 billion over the next 30 years. The retirement program for more than half a million public workers — teachers, county workers, state employees and law enforcement officers — is judged by a complicated formula to be 86 percent funded to pay out future liabilities. The state this year will pay $500 million into the fund to shore it up. In years when investments increase the value of the fund's assets, state money would not be required.
"So I feel strongly that both issues should be addressed together and passed into one bill," Boyd said. "Since we're concerned about both areas of reform, I thought that was the right thing to do."
Committee members approved the bill in a 10-6 vote. Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, attempted a procedural move to keep the bill from moving out of the committee, but it failed.
The bill would bring a number of changes to FRS effective July 1, 2015. It would close the traditional pension plan to new elected officials and newly hired senior managers; place new hires who don't choose a plan by default into the 401(k)-like investment plan instead of the pension; and increase the vesting period for the pension plan from eight years to 10. Unlike its Senate counterpart, the bill would not decrease employee contributions to the investment plan from 3 percent to 2 percent.
Letitia Adams, director of infrastructure & governance policy for the Florida Chamber, expressed support for the proposed committee bill.
"Combining the two bills doesn't change what the bills do," she said. "Both of them are very fiscally prudent and necessary reforms to the systems."
Stephen Sarnoff, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 3179, said the bill and other proposed changes to FRS amount to "death by a thousand cuts."
"These bad bills, whether you combine them or not, go to the very fact that the state Legislature continues to — in the name of protecting taxpayers — want to destroy the ability of people to retire with dignity," he said.
Lynda Russell, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association, which represents 140,000 teachers and other education employees, said it's unfortunate an FRS bill "that we can't seem to get traction on" was merged with the municipal-pension bill, which she and others said was the product of several years of negotiation and appeared ready to pass both chambers.
"It is an essential measure to help first responders and local taxpayers deal with problems in the local pension issue," she said. "And we're going to jeopardize it by adding a political turkey to it."
Jeff Burlew is a reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat.