Pension battle now in hands of high courtby John Kennedy | September 7th, 2012
The battle over 3 percent payroll contributions demanded of public employees by Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature in 2011 went Friday before the state Supreme Court, with a lawyer for workers saying it violates an almost 40-year pension fund guarantee.
About $2 billion is at stake — cash lawmakers expected to draw from the payments. It was used to plug holes in last year’s budget and this year’s spending plan, which took effect July 1.
Lawmakers also could be forced to repay $786 million already collected from employees of the state, school boards, counties, colleges, universities and special districts if justices agree with a lower court that found the payments unconstitutional.
Ron Meyer, attorney for the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said much of the dispute turns on timing. The lower court found the move violated the constitution because it applied to all 623,000 employees in the Florida Retirement System.
If lawmayers had sought the payments only from workers hired after the law took effect July 1 last year, they may have been on solid legal ground, Meyer conceded.
“You just can’t go back and change the deal midway,” Meyer said following arguments before the seven-member court.
Scott and lawmakers, however, say a 1981 court ruling involving the Florida Sheriffs Association, held that the Legislature could reduce the amount of benefits that would go to FRS members. Former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero argued for the state before his former colleagues.
Scott called the change “common-sense public pension reform.”
“The legal question in the case is straightforward,” Scott said. “The Legislature relied on and carefully followed a thirty-year-old Florida Supreme Court case, which held that the Legislature can change the public pension system on a going-forward basis. We therefore expect the Supreme Court to follow its own prior decision.”