TALLAHASSEE — Before state and local governments take the first dime from the paychecks of teachers, police and state workers to put in the state pension plan, three unions filed suit Monday against Gov. Rick Scott and other trustees of the state retirement plan, alleging the move is an unconstitutional violation and a taking of their personal property.
The Florida Education Association filed the lawsuit early Monday in Leon County and was soon joined by the Police Benevolent Association and the SEIU Florida Public Service Union. The lawsuit is the first in what is expected to be a series of challenges to legislation passed this year and signed by the governor.
The unions say the state violated its contractual obligation to state workers when it cut 3 percent of their salaries and shifted the money into the Florida Retirement System, replacing more than $1 billion of the state's obligation to the pension fund. They argued that state law expressly provides that employees do not have to contribute part of their salaries to the state retirement system unless they agree to the change in their negotiated contracts.
"This pay cut was used by legislative leadership to make up a budget shortfall on the backs of teachers, law-enforcement officers, firefighters and other state workers," said FEA president Andy Ford. "It is essentially an income tax levied only on workers belonging to the Florida Retirement System. It's unfair — and it breaks promises made to these employees when they chose to work to improve our state."
The suit was filed in Leon County on behalf of 11 workers from across the state, including two nurses and a social worker in Miami-Dade County, a custodian in Madison County, an elementary teacher in Hillsborough County and two deputies in the Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office.
The workers are asking the court to put aside, while the case moves through the judicial system, the more than $1 billion the state saves from reducing teacher pay 3 percent and ending the cost-of-living increase on their retirement benefits. Until then, workers in the retirement system will see 3 percent of their salaries drop beginning July 1 and their cost-of-living increases end for their future retirement savings.
Scott and state legislators argued the change was needed to bring state pension plan in line with the private sector, which mostly requires workers to contribute into their retirement accounts. Florida was the only state that had not negotiated an employee contribution as part of its retirement plan.
Scott dismissed the relevance of the lawsuit and said the state has a right to make changes to the pension account.
"The participation by people in their pension plan makes all the sense in the world," he said Monday. "It's what's fair to the private sector. Very few private sector employees have a pension plan that is 100 percent. It's the right thing to do for our state."
But Ron Meyer, a lawyer for FEA,agreed that while the state has a right to negotiate future changes in the retirement accounts, it can't impose the changes without reaching agreement from members of the retirement fund. The FRS collects retirement money for more than 655,000 active employees throughout the state and provides benefits to 219,000 retirees. Workers have not paid into the plan since 1974.
Meyer said legislators cut employee salaries to fill a budget hole at the same time they cut corporate income taxes $37 million and offered other tax cuts, money that wasn't used to enhance employee benefits or the pension account. "There could be circumstances where the state has no alternative but to breach a contract. This is not one of them,'' he said.
"This legislation was not about protecting the Florida Retirement System,'' said Florida Public Services Union president Alphonso Mayfield. "It was about taking 3 percent out of the paychecks of public workers to fund $37 million in corporate tax breaks for big corporations and political donors."
House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos did not comment on the lawsuit. Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, a top Senate leader, dismissed the argument of the lawsuit, saying that other states should be worried if this is ruled unconstitutional here.
"If it is illegal or unconstitutional for public employees in Florida to provide a modest contribution to their pensions, then Democratic governors and Democratic legislatures in other state must be trembling today, because 49 other states do it,'' Gaetz said.
Ford acknowledged that this action is "making ourselves a target" of House and Senate leaders but said that doing the right thing "trumps the fear of legislative payback."
He said this is "the first in what is likely to be a series of judicial challenges to some of the reckless legislation that was dreamed up by legislative leaders and heartily endorsed by our governor."
Meyer said the union is also planning to file a lawsuit against Senate Bill 736, which linked teacher pay to student performance, and against a proposed constitutional amendment eliminating the ban on state funds going to religious institutions, "which will certainly facilitate expansion of school vouchers."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached a meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Herald staff writers Carli Teproff and Kathleen McGrory and Times staff writers Alex Leary and Tom Marshall contributed to this report.