House Republicans float late-hour pension overhaulby John Kennedy | April 4th, 2014
The state’s traditional pension plan would be closed to senior managers and other new workers would have to wait longer to be eligible for the plan under legislation that cleared a House panel Friday on a partyline vote.
With a more aggressive overhaul of the Florida Retirement System looking dead this session, the House State Affairs Committee floated a more modest approach as the Legislature lurches into the session’s final month.
While ruling Republicans in recent years demanded changes because they viewed the $144.4 billion pension as financially unstable, the rhetoric has changed with the new proposal. The proposal’s sponsor, Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said the new approach is a “modernization” of the FRS.
Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, endorsed the change while acknowledging the current pension is on solid financial footing.
“Pensions are a 20th century dinosaur in a 21st century world,” Caldwell said. “We may have the strongest dinosaur out there, but it’s still a dinosaur.”
Democrats and public employees’ unions, however, joined in opposing the change, saying it is unwarranted.
“We are playing fast and loose with public policy,” said Rich Templin of the AFL-CIO.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, have made changing the FRS one of their priority proposals this spring.
But an earlier proposed change centered on offering new employees a so-called ‘cash balance’ option instead of the traditional pension barely cleared a Senate committee and stalled in the House while a financial study was being prepared.
The late-hour plan taking shape Friday is similar to a proposal backed by the Senate last year. So there is some possibility that it may gain strength. But it looms as a potentially divisive homestretch issue in a session where ruling Republicans appear uninterested in conflicts that could damage Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election prospects this fall.
Supporters of the proposal say that a majority of public employees currently fail to stay in the system long enough to qualify for the traditional pension. They also said that the current 622,000 active members of the FRS and 348,000 retirees wouldn’t be affected by the change in the plan.
Opponents disagreed, saying that limiting some new employees from joining the traditional pension will hurt it financially in coming years.
“The defined benefit plan is going to be weaker,” said Ron Silver, a former legislator now representing the Teamsters Joint Council, whose union includes state correctional officers. “It’ll be less than what it is today.”