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.”