TALLAHASSEE — The audience erupted in applause Thursday as speaker after speaker pleaded before the House committee to reject a pension reform bill they view as punishing all 655,000 employees in the Florida Retirement System for the excesses of a few.
The outcry forced Rep. Jimmy Patronis, a Republican restaurateur from Panama City, to extend the clock for the House Governmental Operations Committee three times before calling for a vote. The bill sailed through along party lines.
The measure would, in effect, cut salaries of all public employees by 5 percent because they would have to pay part of their pension costs, saving the state an estimated $720 million. It is a key part of Gov. Rick Scott's sweeping overhaul of the state's massive pension plan — and it has ignited the fury of rank-and-file workers.
They have arrived at the Capitol armed with numbers: More than half of workers in the system earn less than $40,000. The average annual benefit for retirees is $17,465. At least 297 executive branch workers earn salaries low enough to qualify for Medicaid.
"It seems to me that public-sector employees are now the easy target to close the budget deficit," said Jean Pilgrim, a school district auditor from Escambia County who took a week's vacation with her husband to come to Tallahassee to protest the pension changes.
She cited Congressional Quarterly, which ranked Florida 45th in the nation for total teacher salary and benefits, and warned that the "additional 5 percent tax" would force thousands of school employees across the state to choose between paying groceries or making church offerings.
A final bill is still under much debate. The House bill includes Scott's 5 percent proposal, while the Senate version exempts those earning $40,000 or less — about 53 percent of all public employees in the Florida Retirement System. The Senate bill would make employees earning $40,000 to $75,000 (40 percent) pay 2 percent; those receiving more than $75,000 (7 percent) would pay 4 percent.
Currently, public employees do not have any portion of their salary going into their retirement.
Faced with a Senate bill so remote from his proposal, the governor produced numbers of his own. He launched a website, FloridaHasARighttoKnow.com, to show Floridians the payroll and benefits numbers of thousands of state employees in the retirement system. It included a spreadsheet that highlighted 542 state and local retirees, their names excluded, who draw more than $100,000 in benefits each year.
The list helped illustrate a key point in the governor's argument: Not all pensions are equal. "We must bring Florida in line with the private sector and nearly every other state in the country by requiring government workers to contribute toward their own retirement," Scott said when he announced his pension plan.
But Scott's selective use of the state data unleashed an angry rebuke from workers and unions.
"(The pension page) is not designed to inform; it's designed to inflame the people with a line of rhetoric," said Rich Templin, the AFL-CIO communications director.
The Florida Education Association's Rick Watson told the House committee that the average annual retirement benefit for a teacher who has worked 30 years is $22,419.
The Florida Department of Management Services calculates that the average employee in the state retirement system earns a salary of $34,651, retires with 21 years of service and collects an average annual benefit of $11,642, or $970 a month. Of the 304,337 beneficiaries in the system, less than 1 percent draw more than $100,000.
The governor's list of high-earning retirees includes employees from all across Florida, from state agencies to counties, school boards and a handful of cities, each of which gives elected officials the final say in the negotiation of retirement benefits.
Of the hundreds of retirees drawing more than $100,000 on his list, 194 have retired from the state court system. State law allows judges to earn twice as much in retirement benefits for every year of service. Another 56 retired from the university system, which has its own pension system.
Elected officials and those in the senior management class are rewarded with higher benefits than those in the regular class, allowing them to accrue retirement benefits faster.
Scott has proposed flattening all those differentials by giving everyone the same opportunity to earn retirement benefits at the same rate with the exception of police, firefighters, prison guards and paramedics. High-risk workers would continue to draw retirement benefits at nearly twice the rate of regular workers because of their profession, under the governor's plan. The House also agreed with Scott's plan to flatten categories for elected officials and high-wage administrators but leaves them for "special risk" employees and judges.
"We need to get things more in line with what the private sector is doing, and taxpayers can't afford the rich benefits that state employees have," said Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach.
The AFL-CIO's Templin said state workers are already at a disadvantage when pay and benefits are combined. "The average public-sector worker makes $2,000 less than the private counterparts," he said, and for teachers and other employees with a college degree, the salary gap "balloons to $22,000."
The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, said there's no turning back from requiring employees to pay a portion of their retirement.
"We are elected by the people, and people want public pensions to mirror the private sector," he said. "The argument that you took this job because of the great pension does not work today."
Frank Fabrizio, a captain with the Orange County Sheriff's Office, urged legislators to be careful with their reforms.
"We're all for stopping the abuse of a few," Fabrizio said, "but not by putting it on the backs of all state employees."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.