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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Is Weatherford's pension overhaul resurrected?



An Easter Miracle resurrected Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford’s efforts to reform the state’s Florida Retirement System.

On Easter Sunday, the House State Affairs Committee filed a bill that combines HB 7173, which already passed the Appropriations Committee 16-10 and awaited a floor vote, and HB 7179, which hadn’t passed or been assigned a committee.

The bill merger was meant to gain support in the Florida Senate, which was the reason why Weatherford’s efforts to overhaul the system were defeated last year.

Both bills dealt with retirement. The similarities ended there. HB 7173 would change enrollment procedures into the Florida Retirement System -- changing vesting from eight to 10 years, prohibiting senior management and elected officials to enroll in the pension, and giving all other employees nine months to decide which plan to enroll, pension or private investment, before defaulting into the private investment plan. HB 7179 changes how insurance premium taxes are used in firefighter and police officer pension benefits.

The Senate is dubious on the HB 7173 part. The state’s pension is considered one of the strongest in the nation, a point that even Gov. Rick Scott has made this year. HB 7179, however, is popular in the Senate and is reflected in a bill sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate.

Ring has worked tirelessly on SB 286. The bill helps secure the finances of municipal pensions, which he says face a financial crisis that is more threatening than anything anything facing the state’s pension system.

He sponsored a similar bill last year, only to see it stall as Weatherford’s bill died. After SB 286 passed Senate Appropriations 16-0 on April 10, Ring sounded optimistic that this year would be different.

“It’s a very popular bill,” Ring said then.

Alas, that was before it merged in the House with the FRS bill. It passed the House State Affairs Committee 10-6 on a partisan vote Monday. Democrats, who support the efforts to shore up local pensions, resented merging that issue with the FRS, which they consider strong.

“It’s like marrying a pit bull with a chihuahua and making one breed,” said Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach. “It’s not going to work.”

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, took time to trumpet the hybrid during Monday’s budget conferences with a tease.

“We’re still working on some improvements that we might make in that system,” Gaetz said Monday night.

When pressed, however, Gaetz got all coy. The House has merged the two bills, but that hasn’t happened yet in the Senate. Would that happen in the Senate?

“You better check with the bill sponsor,” Gaetz said afterward. “Next question.”

Ring didn’t sound like he was on board.

“I’m not real happy about this,” he said. “The local bill was going to pass 160 to zero. They put it with a bill that is controversial.”

Would he support the FRS overhaul so that he can get his local pension reform passed?

“I’m not going to commit to anything,” he said.

It gets real today as the Senate Appropriations Committee considers the FRS reform bill, SB 1114. Ring sits on that committee, so will he support the FRS bill, and if he does, will he merge it with his local bill?

Weatherford will be watching.

[Last modified: Tuesday, April 22, 2014 7:57am]


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