Evers predicts snow in Miami before Weatherford passes pension reform
He’s a crucial swing vote that could tip the Florida Senate in favor of House Speaker Will Weatherford’s long-sought pension reform, but Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, said such an overhaul is even less likely than last year.
“If it passes, it’ll be snowing in Miami,” Evers said during a Thursday news conference with the Florida State Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 20,000 sworn officers who are currently enrolled in the state’s $135 billion pension system that pays for the retirement of 1 million current employees, including teachers, and county and state agency workers.
Weatherford tried and failed to last year to prohibit new employees from enrolling in the state pension plan, which provides a guaranteed return, and steer them into private 401(k)-style plans, that are subject to the swings of the market.
Although Weatherford and free-market groups like the James Madison Institute and Americans for Prosperity say the overhaul is necessary to avoid an inevitable future bankruptcy of the plan, most experts generally consider the state pension plan one of the safest and best managed public pensions. Public employee union groups support the system because of the guaranteed return provide security in retirement.
To gain support from at least three of the eight Senate Republican senators who voted against it last year, Weatherford is proposing some changes, including allowing law enforcement and firefighters to continue to enroll in the state pension plan.
But James Preston, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said Thursday that this won’t work either.
“There’s no way to close the Florida retirement system to any significant number of workers that doesn’t destabilize the system,” Preston said. “If you take a block out of that system, there’s no fresh money coming in, and eventually it will collapse.”
Already, Gov. Rick Scott has shown signs that he doesn’t favor making any changes to the system, especially in an election year.
It didn’t help Weatherford’s cause that Evers, who endured a campaign financed by Americans for Prosperity, seemed to relish pronouncing any further attempts at an overhaul to be DOA.
“As the bill is written right now, it is a great bill -- provided you give the employees a 50 percent raise,” Evers said. “You give state employees, whether they are wearing a uniform, carrying a gun or sitting behind a desk, you give every employee a 50 percent pay raise, then I think we can redo the (Florida retirement system). Because then they would have the money that they could take and put in the investment plan.’
By pay raise, Evers means “poison pill.” He acknowledged Thursday he didn’t know how much such a massive pay raise would cost and that it wasn’t even being discussed. Surrounded by FOP members, everyone had a good laugh at that.
Evers made his comments before there’s even been a House bill filed on the subject. Asked for a response to Evers’ comments, Weatherford issued a statement: “We expect the House’s pension reform to be filed in the next few weeks. Whether it will be filed before (an actuarial study) comes in has not been determined.”
That study is due at the end of March.
The only bills that address reforming the pension system are being sponsored, like last year, by Weatherford’s boss, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.
SB 1114 would establish a complex “cash balance” retirement plan that would require employees and employers to make contributions and guarantee employees at least a two percent rate of return. Public safety employees hired after June 30, 2015, would have eight months to decide if they want to enroll in either the pension plan, cash balance plan or an investment plan. If they make no decision, they’ll get enrolled in the cash balance plan.
Many of the comments Evers made Thursday were in relation to an investment plan that is expected to come from the House. Simpson’s office said that it was that plan, not SB 1114, that Evers was referencing.
Still, Evers sounded like he likes the Florida Retirement System just the way it is, even if it requires payments of $500 million a year to shore up. That’s a vestige to the past decade in which lawmakers raided the pension to pay for other things in the budget.
“A lot of folks say it’s going to take billions of dollars,” Evers said. “It may. But we as a Legislature made the decision not to make full contributions in past years. And now it’s time we step up to the plate.”
Later, asked if he was writing off Simpson's bill as well, Evers said he was.
"I'm not going to support any plan if they don't raise salaries by 50 percent," he said.