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Senate approves local pension overhaul facing uncertain future in House

Monday, April 28th, 2014 by John Kennedy

The Florida Senate set itself on a collision course Monday by approving a proposal overhauling local police and fire pensions but ignoring a more sweeping plan that cleared the House last week.

The Senate approach (CS/SB 246) give cities a chance to use the state’s insurance premium tax to bolster police and fire pension funds.

With the support of police and fire unions, the bill relaxes a 1999 law that required cities to offer only new benefits with these tax dollars, a move that analysts say has contributed to many funds now becoming financially troubled.

“This is one of the great crises facing Florida,” said Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, who has been working four years on trying to forge a consensus on local pensions.

The House, however, has merged a similar pension bill with a larger change to the Florida Retirement System. The FRS rewrite has little support in the Senate, and the House tactic is clearly aimed at trying to muscle senators into accepting it if they want to repair local pensions.

Ring acknowledged that in the session’s closing week, it’s difficult to predict the local pension bill’s fate. But he said it is poised to improve retirement accounts across Florida.

“If and when this bill passes, we won’t be involved in local pensions again,” Ring assured senators.

The Leroy Collins Institute at Florida State University has studied the state’ municipal pensions, sounding alarms about the financial health of many plans.

Those drawing low marks in the 2011 review, included Boynton Beach’s police plan and Palm Beach Gardens’ police and fire plans – while West Palm Beach’s police pension was named among the best-funded in the state.

The study concluded that the municipal pension slide began in the early 2000s, well before the recession. The timing is close to when Gov. Jeb Bush and the Republican-led Legislature approved changes which improved city police and fire pensions.

The law was effectively a payback for unions which endorsed Bush over Democrat Buddy MacKay in the 1998 governor’s race.

Democrats mock Scott with end of year report card — mostly ‘Fs’

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Democratic activists and union representatives gathered outside Rick Scott’s Capitol office Wednesday to deliver an end-of-year report card to the Republican governor.

He failed. But Scott did get an A-plus for what Barbara DeVane of the Florida Alliance of Retired Americans called helping special interests.

“He gets an ‘F’ on helping the middle class this year,” DeVane said.

Despite back-to-back years of $1 billion increases in funding for education — not mentioned by Monday’s gathering — Scott “has not supported our schools,” Devane said. She cited Palm Beach County, where aging infrastructure led to some kids being held out of schools because of air-conditioning failures this fall, as an example of the governor’s lack of commitment.

The county’s school superintendent, Wayne Gent, has warned the school board the county could be $80 million short next year in meeting basic maintenance costs.

Scott wasn’t in his office Wednesday — with an appearance planned in Miami. But the shoddy report card, which included other ‘F’ grades in public health, employee management and job creation, was delivered to a receptionist in the governor’s office.

The dozen activists who gathered Monday had to make their way to the governor’s office through a Capitol rotunda growing increasingly crowded with holiday displays put up by atheists, others marking the winter solstice, and the latest, a ‘flying spaghetti monster’ created by those mocking the arrival earlier this month of a nativity scene.

The Florida Republican Party swung back, defending Scott’s record.

“These extreme liberals can continue throwing out false attacks like spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks, but the fact is that under Rick Scott nearly 441,000 private-sector jobs have been created, state-based education funding is at the highest level in Florida history, schools are improving, and the unemployment rate is dropping,” said Florida GOP spokeswoman Susan Hepworth.


Scott praises growing list of school districts approving teacher raises

Monday, December 16th, 2013 by John Kennedy

With Palm Beach County poised this week to join a growing list of school districts approving teacher pay raises, Gov. Rick Scott on Monday praised those getting on board with the $480 million plan he pushed through last spring’s Legislature.

Fifty-two of Florida’s 67 school districts have approved some form of increase. Many of the salary bumps, though, are falling short of what Scott and lawmakers expected to range from $2,500 each for teachers rated “effective” to $3,500 for those who earned “highly effective” grades.

Palm Beach’s raises look likely to land around $1,000 for first-year teachers to $2,000 for the highest-paid educators. But after a slow rollout of the raises — caused mostly by protracted local negotiations — Scott appeared happy that some level of increase is being achieved.

“Working with the Legislature, we were proud to recognize the achievements of Florida students by awarding teachers for their work,” Scott said. “We will continue to find ways to support Florida’s teachers, who are the backbone of our entire education system.”


Scott urges counties, including Palm Beach, to OK teacher pay hikes

Monday, December 2nd, 2013 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott tried to light a fire Monday under two dozen Florida counties, including Palm Beach, which still haven’t approved the teacher pay raises he made his top priority during last spring’s legislative session.

Scott said that 28 school districts have finalized teacher pay hikes, while another 15 have reached tentative agreements still awaiting a vote by school boards.

“We understand the local negotiation process that every district must go through in order to finalize teacher pay raise amounts,” Scott said in a letter Monday to Florida School Superintendents. “But we urge any district that has not yet reached a final agreement to contact Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart so we can offer any assistance possible to expedite this district-level process.”

Scott pushed the Legislature to approve $480 million for raises that were to range from $2,500 each for teachers rated “effective” and as much as $3,500 for those who earned “highly effective” grades. But negotiations between teacher unions and local boards have left many teachers waiting, while the raises in some counties also have fallen more around the $1,500 range.

The Palm Beach County Teachers Association and school officials are scheduled to continue negotiations Wednesday and Thursday this week but remain at odds over a range of issues. Palm Beach and Orange, which is at a declared impasse in negotiations, are the state’s largest counties with no final deal in the works.

Scott is running for re-election next year. The Democratic frontrunner challenging him is Charlie Crist, who as a Republican governor became a teachers’ union pet for vetoing legislation that would’ve tied teacher pay to student performance, a measure approved under Scott.

Scott, though, is making an appeal to teachers. In his letter, the Republican governor said the pay hikes, “represent something more than money.

“This funding is a commitment,” Scott wrote superintendents. “It is a commitment that future generations of Florida workers will have the training, skills and education they need to compete and succeed in a global economy.”


Teachers union wants to check email between Bennett, ALEC and Jeb

Monday, August 12th, 2013 by John Kennedy

The American Federation of Teachers said Monday it is filing public records requests in Florida for email and other communication between former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, ex-state Education Commissioner Tony Bennett and others.

AFT Randi Weingarten said the move follows a similar request the teachers’ union made last week in Indiana, where Bennett formerly was Education Commissioner. Bennett resigned from his Florida post earlier this month after it became known that he pushed to raise the letter grade given a school run by a top Republican donor in Indiana while he ran that state’s school system.

Before he resigned, Bennett emailed Bush and Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels seeking support.

“Public education is a public good, and taxpayers, parents, teachers and others who rely on our public schools are entitled to full transparency around the decisions and actions made regarding our schools—whether in Indiana or here in
Florida,” Weingarten said.

“We need to reclaim the promise of public education to help all children reach their full potential,” she added. “Tony Bennett betrayed that promise when he put backroom deals and favors for political donors ahead of the children of Indiana. Creating full transparency will ensure continued confidence and trust in our public schools.”

AFT’s public records request also is aimed at trying to get communication between Bush’s foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative policy organization that has been a longtime advocate of charter and online education.

AFT wants to learn more about connections between the organizations the finance Bush’s foundation, including Charter Schools USA, and education policy nationwide.

Charter Schools USA employes Bennett’s wife in Louisiana and also was a major donor to Republican campaigns and an organization backing Florida’s corporate tax-scholarship program that sends low-income students mostly to charter schools.

Charter schools have grown tremendously in Florida over the past decade, helped by a receptive Legislature, which includes several members closedly involved with such schools or the for-profit companies that run them.

With a teacher raise tour, Scott seeks payoff

Monday, May 13th, 2013 by John Kennedy

At five schools in as many Florida counties, Gov. Rick Scott stumped the state last week praising teachers and the $2,500 raises he pushed lawmakers to include for them in the $74.5 billion budget.

But strategists say it’s far less certain whether the Republican governor will be able to cash in politically on the raises in his re-election bid next year.

Despite making teacher pay his top priority of the legislative session, Scott, like every Republican governor before him, appears unlikely to break the Democratic Party’s powerful bond with the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

“Nobody knows what he’s thinking with this strategy,” said FEA President Andy Ford. “It’s clearly all about 2014 and the governor’s race. Teachers welcome the raises. But that doesn’t buy forgiveness.”

Scott may be seeking to make some strides with women, middle-aged voters and independents. But his strategy isn’t moving the needle with teachers — even some self-identified Republicans.

The full story:

Senator calls House approach to pension “wrong,” “ill-conceived”

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013 by John Kennedy

The legislative standoff over revamping the Florida Retirement System hardened Wednesday — with Sen. Jack Latvala deriding the House approach as “wrong” and “ill-conceived.”

The Senate Community Affairs Committee approved its more modest approach to the $136 billion fund on a 5-3 party-line vote, with Democrats opposed.

The Senate proposal (CS/SB 1392)  by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, would give new public employees an incentive by cutting their payroll contributions to 2 percent if they join the state’s 401(k) styled investment plan.

If workers choose the traditional, defined benefit pension plan, they’d pay 3 percent. The only new workers required to join the investment plan would be senior managers, under Simpson’s bill.

The House, by contrast, is looking to close the Florida Retirement System’s defined benefit plan to new employees. The legislation (CS/HB 7011) is expected to clear the House on Friday — over opposition from outnumbered Democrats, who are siding with union allies who are fighting the changes.

The legislation is a top priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who maintains that the FRS is underfunded and will command increasing millions of dollars from Florida taxpayers to keep it afloat in future years, a stance disputed by many experts.

The Senate’s Simpson also downplays House warnings about the state of the pension plan.  He also told fellow senators “it would be a cold day,” before he would fold and go along with the House approach.


House-Senate split on pension hints at deal-making to come

Thursday, March 14th, 2013 by John Kennedy

An effort by leading House Republicans to close the Florida Retirement System’s traditional pension plan to new employees cleared its final committee stop Thursday — after undergoing some changes that did little to ease overwhelming opposition from public workers’ unions.

Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, endorsed an amendment that continues to make new hires eligible for disability and death benefits — a provision whose earlier absence had infuriated police and firefighter unions.

More than 60 opponents of the legislation — many police and firefighters in uniform — signed up to speak against the bill (CS/HB 7011) which cleared the State Affairs Committee on a 12-5 partyline vote. But restoring the disability and death benefits didn’t soften their criticism of the bill.

Democrats were locked in opposition to the measure.

“There’s no reason for it,” said Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach. “It defies logic. This is a bad, bad, bad idea.”

New hires seeking a retirement account would instead be required to join a defined contribution investment plan beginning Jan. 1.

The legislation is a top priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who maintains that the FRS is underfunded and will command increasing millions of dollars from Florida taxpayers to keep it afloat in future years, a
stance disputed by many experts.

Republicans on the committee said it was important for the state to act swiftly.

“This plan will decrease the financial risk to our taxpayers,” said Rep. Jake Raburn, R-Lithia.

But opponents warned that the legislation is not only unnecessary, it’s potentially dangerous. The $126 billion pension fund is used by more than 623,000 state and local government workers and another 335,000 retirees.

The FRS is considered 87 percent funded. Most analysts acknowledge that 80 percent is the benchmark for a fund considered to be on solid financial footing.

Republican leaders, however, say that unfunded actuarial liability is $19.2 billion — a level they say is alarming.

Still, those defending the fund say the shortfall would exist only if every pensioner demanded their full payments at once, which analysts say would never happen.

While the measure could head to the House floor as early as next week, the Republican-led Senate seems to have little interest in going that far.

A more modest change, proposed by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, advanced Thursday in the Senate’s Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee.

The bill (SB1392) would give new public employees an incentive by cutting their payroll contributions to 2 percent if they join the investment plan. If they choose the traditional plan, they’d pay 3 percent.

The only new workers required to join the investment plan would be senior managers, under Simpson’s bill. Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has come in favor of Simpson’s proposal.

The division between the House and Senate makes it likely that some kind of compromise will have to be forged for any FRS changes to clear the Legislature this spring.

“It looks like we’ll have to sit down and talk to Sen. Simpson,” Brodeur conceded after the House vote.

House plan to close traditional pension to new workers carries costs, study concludes

Friday, February 15th, 2013 by John Kennedy

The Florida Retirement System, used by more than 600,000 state workers, teachers, police officers and firefighters, would change dramatically under a state House proposal to close the plan’s traditional pension to new employees, according to a state study released Friday night.

The analysis by Milliman, a Virginia-based actuarial firm, concluded that the move would likely increase the plan’s cost for employees. These workers began contributing 3 percent of their pay to take part in the plan for the first time, beginning in 2011.

Also, within as little as seven years, more employees could belong to the 401(k)-style investment plan than the traditional defined benefit plan. The shift  would contribute to a likely change in how the $122 billion FRS invests its holdings,  concluded Milliman, who completed the report for the state’s Department of Management Services.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who is spearheading the pension change, said the report will help lawmakers map a course for the FRS when the legislative session begins next month.

“We are reviewing the study received from the actuary and will derive from it the fiscal impact of our plan to reform Florida’s outdated pension system,” Weatherford said. “Ultimately, we believe that reducing the taxpayer exposure to Florida’s pension liability and creating greater fiscal predictability in our budget is in the best interest of all Floridians.”

The pension fund currently is 87 percent funded — with Gov. Rick Scott recommending in his budget that state lawmakers add $552 million in taxpayer money to fund the state’s share of the fund’s liability.

It’s those payments Weatherford and other supporters of the plan would like to see reduced. Florida’s fund is currently considered strong by most analysts, with the recommended minimum level of funding usually considered to be 80 percent.

Unions oppose ending the defined benefit option for new employees.

They say the move would undermine a strong pension plan and that it is driven by politics — with the Republican-controlled Legislature intent on weakening union strength in Florida.

“This is more about ideology than money,” said Rich Templin, spokesman for the AFL-CIO.

The Florida Retirement System has 623,011 currently employed members, including teachers, state workers, and many local government employees, police officers and firefighters.

Within the system, workers currently can choose between the traditional pension or, for the past decade, an optional 401(k)-like plan. The pension remains the favorite, though, with more than 500,00 employees enrolled, compared with only about 100,000 in the inverstment plan.

The pension fund has another 334,682 retirees enrolled who already collect benefits.

Closing the plan to new employees will rob the traditional pension fund of its stream of new dollars, Milliman concluded. It will also create a system where only older workers looking forward to gaining larger pensions, remain in the fund.


House committee takes hurry-up action on pension overhaul

Thursday, February 7th, 2013 by John Kennedy

A House panel raced ahead Thursday with one of House Speaker Will Weatherford’s top priorities — closing the state’s traditional pension plan to new hires — over opposition from union representatives who warn the move could undermine the Florida Retirement System.

The hurry-up action by the usually conservative Republican House also comes a week before a study is expected to be completed aimed at gauging the legislation’s financial impact.

The House Governmental Operations Subcommittee approved the measure on an 8-3 vote, divided on party lines. Democrats critical of the overhaul sided with union officials who said that closing the defined benefit portion of the Florida Retirement System to new employees would jeopardize the plan for those now in the plan.

New hires seeking a pension plan would be forced to join a defined contribution, 401(k)-styled investment plan beginning Jan. 1, under the legislation. The bill also would bar new employees from eligibility for disability benefits — a restriction fiercely opposed by police and fire unions.

“There’s concern about the unknown,” said Matt Puckett, representing the Florida Police Benevolent Association. “That’s what this is all about. There’s risk in closing the plan.”

Chairman Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, acknowledged lawmakers will have a better idea about the financial affects of the potential change when the state’s Department of Management Services completes a study next week. But it’s clear that Weatherford’s push for the change helped drive Thursday’s vote.

“These sensible reforms will offer a sound investment plan to future employees, while at the same time being realistic about the commitments our state government can continue to make,” Brodeur said after the vote.

The Florida Retirement System has 623,011 currently employed members, including teachers, state workers, police officers and firefighters. Another 334,682 are already retired and collecting benefits.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has clamored for revamping the system, warning that state payments into the pension fund will continue to escalate. The $126 billion FRS currently is 87 percent funded — with Gov. Rick Scott recommending in his budget that state lawmakers add $552 million in taxpayer money to fund the state’s share of the fund’s liability.

It’s those payments Weatherford and other supporters of the plan would like to see reduced. Florida’s fund is currently considered strong by most analysts, with a minimum level of funding put at 80 percent.

But that could change, union officials told lawmakers.

“Without new people coming in, it loses its stability and loses more stability over time,” said Rich Templin of the AFL-CIO.

Florida’s pension plans have proved a target for Scott and the state’s Republican leadership.

Last month, the Florida Supreme Court narrowly upheld the Legislature’s decision in 2011 to require workers to contribute 3 percent of their pay to participate in the FRS. The $2 billion collected from those payments the past two years allowed lawmakers to have more cash to plug holes elsewhere in the state budget.

Unions unsuccesfully challenged the law claiming it violated contractual rights granted public employees in 1974, when the pension was converted to a “noncontributory system.”

While the House is focused on the FRS, the Senate is considering legislation aimed at revising laws governing hundreds of municipal pension across Florida.


Scott’s budget gets another gentle review — this time from Senate

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013 by John Kennedy

A day after the House budget committee gave Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed $74.2 billion state spending plan a mostly gentle review, its Senate counterpart followed suit Wednesday — although a few stylistic differences emerged.

Senators seemed more concerned than the House about the state maintaining fat reserve funds — a particular focus of Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, also extracted an acknowledgement from Scott budget director Jerry McDaniel that the Legislature could move forward with a funding boost for Florida State University similar to the $15 million extra the governor wants for University of Florida to help it achieve top 1o ranking by academic reviewers.

McDaniel also pledged that Scott’s plan for $2,500 pay increases for teachers would not interfere with local collective bargaining agreements between union representatives and county school boards.

Several counties have reached deals that require raises to be based on performance standards — which may affect how counties dole out the pay hikes sought by Scott.

“We recognize that some teachers may get $4,000; some may get $1,000,” McDaniel said.

Otherwise, the Senate panel followed a course similar to that cut Tuesday by the House budget panel. Democrats’ questions pivoted mostly on school funding and why Scott was not endorsing the Medicaid expansion authorized under the Affordable Care Act.

“We believe we have too many questions than answers,” McDaniel said, echoing comments he made a day earlier.

But McDaniel may have given some hope to health care advocates who have been looking for signs that Scott’s resistence is waning.

“He does not yet propose expansion,” McDaniel told the committee.

Study shows city pension woes here to stay

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Municipal pension plans are stretching thinner in Florida as a smaller workforce supports a growing number of retirees — with prospects bleak that funds will recover, a report released Wednesday concludes.

The Leroy Collins Institute’s latest review of the plans found that while the sluggish economy has contributed to the funds’ problems, deeper woes plague them.

“These municipal pension issues were not created overnight and can’t be changed overnight,” said David Matkin, a public administration professor at Florida State University, who studied Florida’s 492 municipal pension plans for the Tallahassee-based institute.

The problems track those facing the Social Security system or Medicare:  Too few workers supporting a growing number of retirees. If anything, municipal budget cuts and layoffs in recent years have contributed to the imbalance, analysts said.

The result: city commissioners must earmark a larger share of municipal budgets for pension benefits. That means citizen services decline, Matkin said.

“They take up a space that is demanded by other services,” Matkin said. “You have to have some budgeting tradeoffs.”

A report released last November by the Leroy Collins Institute gave mixed reviews on the health of pension plans in 100 Florida cities, with one-third drawing ‘D’ or “F” grades for being underfunded. In Palm Beach County, plans in six cities earned failing, or near-failing grades.

Boynton Beach’s police plan and Palm Beach Gardens’ police and fire pensions were among the 15 percent of municipal plans drawing F’s. Various Plans in Riviera Beach, Boca Raton, Jupiter, Boynton Beach and Lake Worth earned D’s in the Collins Institute analysis of financial strength.

But general employee pensions in Boca Raton, Delray Beach and the West Palm Beach police pension also were named as some of the best-funded plans in the state.

Matkin found Florida’s pension slide began in the early 2000s, well before the recession. The timing is close to when Gov. Jeb Bush and the Republican-led Legislature approved changes that improved city police and fire pensions.

 The provision requires that growth in dollars flowing to cities from state taxes on property insurance premiums go to additional benefits for police officers and firefighters.

Cities next responded with such pension sweeteners as cost-of-living adjustments, lower retirement age, or an increased “multiplier” used in determining pensions based on years-of-service, all of which municipal officials say have forced cities to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on pension costs since 1999.

 The pro-union law was the first measure enacted by Bush and Republican legislators in Florida that year, then the first GOP-controlled government of any state that had been part of the Confederacy. Bush had been endorsed in the 1998 governor’s race by police and fire unions over Democrat Buddy MacKay, largely on the strength of the promised payback.

Bush eagerly signed the measure ­- relishing the symbolism of making good in a hurry on a campaign promise.

Bush and Republican leaders, however, are rarely thought of as being allied with unions. Indeed, Bush last year co-authored an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times, decrying the financial woes of states, putting much of the blame on union contracts.

Bush’s co-writer was Newt Gingrich, then a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

Scott and teachers union meet over grouper dinner — with a little history on the side

Friday, September 14th, 2012 by John Kennedy

History was the garnish to plates of grouper served Friday night at the Governor’s Mansion, when Republican Gov. Rick Scott had dinner with a half-dozen representatives of the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Both sides said the closed-door dinner meeting went well, being the first of its kind since Scott took office in January 2011. Florida Education Association President Andy Ford is expected to return for a meeting with Scott next week — this time a more traditional business huddle likely slated for Wednesday in the governor’s office, both sides said.

“I think we can always find opportunity to improve what’s on the books — especially with merit pay,” Ford said, adding, “Tonight was a good first step toward having some dialogue that probably should have happened a long time ago.”  

Scott railed against the teachers’ union during his election campaign two years ago, when the FEA was a heavy backer of Scott’s rival, vanquished Democratic gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink.

 The relationship didn’t get any warmer.

The first bill Scott signed into law as governor recast the way teachers were evaluated — making reviews more dependent on student performance. The legislation has been challenged by the union. The same session, Scott approved a measure that extracted 3 percent payments from public employees in the Florida Retirement System, the bulk of them teachers and other school board employees.

The first state budget Scott signed cut public school funding by $1.3 billion. The second spending plan restored $1 billion — but most school districts have eliminated scores of jobs.

Much of the discussion Friday pivoted around how the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) is deployed both for gauging students and teachers, along with Scott and the Republican-ruled Legislature’s push to expand virtual education. The possibility of private school vouchers returning — after they were ruled unconstitutional in 2006 by the Florida Supreme Court — wasn’t on the table, Scott said.

“I’m working on this job,” Scott said, when asked why it’s taken so long to meet with FEA representatives. “Remember, as a lawyer, you’re always practicing.”

The Friday night dinner capped a week in which Scott traveled the state on a “listening tour,” meeting with parents, teachers, school superintendents and principals to discuss how Florida can improve its education system.  He was in Boca Raton on Tuesday and plans to complete his tour next week in Fort Walton Beach.

“I believe parents ought to have choice, I believe that’s good for them,” Scott said. “I believe in the public school system. I grew up in the public school system. It was good for me. The teachers had a dramatic, positive impact on the my life….Is choice good? Yeah. But let’s make sure we do it the right way. Is competition good? Sure, but let’s make sure we do it the right way.”

After bidding goodnight to Scott at the mansion door, Ford acknowledged he was “shocked” by the reachout from the governor. But he said he welcomed the dialogue. Still, he told reporters, some issues are not up for discussion.

Vouchers? “Not for us. End of story,” Ford said.

Pension battle now in hands of high court

Friday, September 7th, 2012 by John Kennedy

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.”


Scott lawyers say judge was wrong in pension case

Monday, June 11th, 2012 by John Kennedy

A Leon County judge was wrong in ruling that Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-ruled Legislature violated the state constitution last year by ordering 3 percent payroll contributions from public employees in the Florida Retirement System, state lawyers said in a new filing with the Florida Supreme Court.

At stake in the case before justices: close to $2 billion in the budgets of the state, counties and school districts.

Lawyers for Scott and other state officials are appealing the March ruling. Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford at the time said the state’s action overran contractual rights granted public employees in 1974, when the pension plan was converted to a “noncontributory system” for workers.

But former Justice Raoul Cantero, now a private attorney representing the state in the case, argued in a 44-page brief filed with the court that Fulford’s order ”runs contrary to decades of precedent.”

“The Legislature’s decision to modify the FRS system was fully within its prerogatives because the right of public employees to collective bargaining does not override the Legislature’s appropriations power,” Cantero wrote.

Also at the center of the state’s appeal is Fulford’s interpretation of a 1981 state Supreme Court decision involving the Florida Sheriffs Association, which pivoted on the Legislature changing benefits for future state employment. 

Cantero argued that in the Sheriffs ruling, justices held that the Legislature could reduce the amount of benefits that would go to FRS members in the future.

 But Fulford concluded that employees currently in the pension system have a property right to a noncontributory plan and that nothing in the Sheriffs’ case authorizes the Legislature to “change the fundamental nature of the plan itself.”

The lawsuit was filed last summer against Scott and other state officials on behalf of 11 public employees who are members of the retirement system. Those suing include members of the Florida Education Association, AFL-CIO, America Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Fraternal Order of Police and Service Employees International Union.

There are 655,000 government workers in the FRS. The Supreme Court has not yet set a date for arguments in the case.

Scott and the Legislature last year used the $1.1 billion in pension fund payments to help close a yawning budget gap. The state’s 67 counties also saved about $600 million in pension payments by having employees contribute the 3 percent.

The same payments were incorporated into the $69.9 billion state budget set to take effect July 1.

If  justices uphold the lower court’s ruling, the state has said reserves would have to be deployed to cover the lost revenue.

As part of its appeal, the state also is arguing that Fulford exceeded her authority by ordering that payments be refunded to the public employees in the FRS.

Cantero, in the state’s appeal, acknowledged that the Legislature’s decision to require pension payments to close a budget hole was controversial. But he said that justices should affirm that such actions are within the power of lawmakers –not courts, to decide.

“While reasonable people may differ about whether the Legislature should have solved the states $3.6 billion budget shortfall in part by reducing employees’ future pension benefits, such difficult policy choices are for the Legislature,” he concluded.

While still scraping barnacles, Scott gets better news on approval rating

Friday, May 11th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott gets something like good news on his approval ratings in a new survey by Suffolk University and WSVN-TV-Miami.

The poll shows 42 percent of voters like the job he’s doing as governor — compared with 44 percent who disapprove. The disapproval rating is better than the chilling 54 percent marks Scott earned in late April in two separate surveys, Public Policy Polling and Rasmussen Reports.

While PPP found Scott’s approval still hovered low — at 34 percent, Rasmussen gave Scott better numbers — 43 percent backing from voters.

The Post reported earlier this week that the Republican Party of Florida has paid almost $1 million since March for a TV campaign, promoting the governor’s push for $1 billion more for public schools and helping state unemployment fall to a three-year low behind what the ads label Scott’s “pro-business initiatives.”

But with his barnacle-scraping approval ratings, Scott is likely to emerge this election season as a candidate Democrats and their allies seek to tie to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

“Rick Scott’s not on the ballot, but the philosophy he espouses will be, and that’s what will be our focus,” said Rich Templin, a spokesman for the Florida AFL-CIO, which represents 500,000 workers in the state.

Union-backed group targets Allen West

Monday, April 2nd, 2012 by George Bennett


That group that was advertising $10-$12 an hour canvassing jobs on Craigslist to target U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Plantation, is backed by the Service Employees International Union.

West Palm Beach-based Stand Up Florida is supported by a group called One Miami, which is headed by SEIU officials and gets its money from the union and other groups.

Read about it in this week’s Politics column — where you’ll also find out which two Democratic state House members are preparing for a Senate primary clash and why Palm Beach County Commissioner Jess Santamaria is in court this week.

Judge strikes down pension payroll contributions — blows $1 billion hole in state budget

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-ruled Legislature violated the state’s constitutional right to collective bargaining last year when it ordered 3 percent payroll contributions for 655,000 government workers who belong to the Florida Retirement System, a Leon County Circuit judge ruled Tuesday.

Judge Jackie Fulford’s ruling blows a $1 billion hole in the state’s current-year budget, while also costing the state’s 67 counties another $600 million that would now have to be repaid to employees in the pension fund. The debt, however, is likely to be put on hold once state officials appeal the ruling — which is expected quickly.

The Florida Supreme Court is likely to ultimately hear the case, attorneys for both sides have said.

In her decision, Fulford said legislation approved last spring which ordered the contributions was unconstitutional because it violated contractual rights granted employees in 1974, when the pension plan was converted to a “noncontributory system” for workers. 

“To find otherwise would mean that a contract with our state government has not meaning and that the citizens of our state can place no trust in the work of our Legislature,” Fulford said.

The lawsuit was filed  last summer against Scott and other state officials on behalf of 11 public employees who are members of the retirement system.

Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, called it a “historic moment”  for labor rights.

“It proves the Florida governor and the Florida Legislature are not above the law and they have to follow the constitution,” Ford said. “Life is a series of choices and the Florida Legislature and governor have made their choices and they need to re-evaluate where they are.

“They have decided…over and over again to provide tax relief to big corporations and to those who put contributions into their campaigns. That needs to stop, they need to fund the services of the state of Florida.”

House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said he disagreed with Fulford’s ruling, which he also characterized as an early step in a long legal fight. He also said lawmakers would continue to rely on cash from the FRS payroll contributions in the $70 billion budget proposal for the coming year that is poised for a final vote Friday.

 “The ruling of a trial court judge is the first and not the final step. Today’s ruling will have no immediate impact on the passage of the 2012-2013 General Appropriations Act, which the House will take up this Friday in fulfillment of our constitutional responsibility to pass a balanced budget.”



Scott a secret Santa — gives state workers an extra day off

Friday, December 16th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott has had a rocky relationship with state workers, 120,000 Floridians who haven’t seen a pay raise since 2006.

They campaigned against him as a candidate. And public employees’ unions are suing him for the 3 percent salary contributions he and the Republican-led Legislature ordered workers to pay this year to belong to the Florida Retirement System.

But in the spirit of the season, Scott on Friday ordered all state government buildings closed on Dec. 23 — giving workers an extra day off and an early start on the egg nog.

“On the day before a weekend during which Christmas falls, historically, there has been an extremely low business volume, and a large number of State employees take annual leave to be with their families,” Scott noted in a letter to Department of Management Services Secretary Jack Miles, ordering the closure.

“I also note that the Supreme Court of Florida has declared December 23 to be a Court holiday, and that both the Florida House of Representatives and the Senate have no business whatsoever scheduled for that date. Considering the low utilization of State executive buildings on these days, closing these buildings will also result in a savings of utilities and management costs,” the governor added.

 Then he exclaimed, “I wish you and your family a joyous holiday season.”

 Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, suggested a similar step last year to outgoing Gov. Charlie Crist, but it didn’t go anywhere. Williams said giving workers off the Friday before Christmas could help the economy.

“It’s a good idea,” Williams said. “I’ve got to figure nine out of 10 workers will be out in the stores spending, because they’re not at work that day.”


Florida draws C in national survey on job incentive dollars

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Even as Gov. Rick Scott’s administration acknowledges it needs to improve oversight of job-creation money, a national report Wednesday graded the state’s incentive programs as average in terms of tracking the dollars and creating jobs which bring decent wages.

Scott is seeking $230 million in next year’s budget for incentive dollars for his newly created Department of Economic Opportunity, more than doubling the cash available to lure businesses to relocate or expand in Florida.

But lawmakers have questioned just how well the state can vouch for the $739 million in incentives it has spread across some 1,600 contracts since 1995.

The report by Good Jobs First, Inc., a non-partisan, nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., gave Florida a C grade for its ability to follow the dollars and turn them into jobs.

 ”With unemployment still so high, taxpayers have a right to expect that economic development investments create significant numbers of quality jobs,” said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First. “The days of ‘no strings attached’ are largely gone, but the fine print in many states is still full of gaps and loopholes.”

 Good Jobs’ review found Nevada, North Carolina and Vermont did best in applying job standards to their major subsidy programs. The District of Columbia, Alaska and Wyoming rated worst.

Oversight and performance of Florida’s big five economic development programs placed the state eighth best on the national survey.  Although laws governing four of the five subsidy programs set some kind of wage standard, none require employers to provide health benefits to workers, analysts said. 

“This study provides a roadmap for Florida legislators and economic development officials as they attempt to require more accountability from corporations receiving job subsidies,” said Alan Stonecipher, a spokesman for the Florida Cetner for Fiscal and Economic Policy, which co-released the Florida findings.

The report is here:




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