TALLAHASSEE — Despite public outrage, the odds that the Legislature will crack down on "double-dipping" state employees looked highly unlikely Thursday after a lengthy, heated debate in the Florida Senate.
Senators initially rejected and then barely resuscitated a measure that would have stopped nearly all retired state pensioners from returning to their job for the state, collecting both a pension and a paycheck.
"You can't have both, ladies and gentlemen," the measure's sponsor, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, told his colleagues. "The taxpayers can't afford both, and they shouldn't have to pay for both."
But most senators argued against the plan, questioning whether it was wise to limit individuals' potential future contribution to state government.
Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, argued that under Fasano's measure, if she were a retired school principal, she couldn't run for school board and collect a salary that paid more than $30,000.
"You're telling me, I can't get paid for it, and I can't receive the money I earned while I served," Joyner said.
Fasano's measure also would have prohibited any state retirees from going back to work in a different state job that paid them more than $30,000 annually while they also collected retirement benefits.
Among those potentially affected: six senators who are collecting retirement benefits as well as legislative salaries slightly above the cap, at $31,000.
First, senators voted to strip off the $30,000 cap — as long as a retiree would return to a different job, they could still be a double-dipper. But then the senators killed the entire idea with a voice vote and rejected an effort to have individual votes recorded.
Five minutes later, senators took the unusual step to agree to revive the dead measure, referring the issue back to a committee. Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said that senators were confused and didn't realize they had killed the issue entirely.
The debate was among the most heated to come up yet this legislative session.
The floor maneuver was part of Fasano's strategy to try to get the idea before the entire Senate. He has filed a bill addressing the "double dipping" issue, but that bill is moving slowly and has many committee stops, meaning it would have been unlikely to get to the Senate floor before the end of the session May 2.
Fasano took a short cut by adding the amendment to a noncontroversial retirement bill that had already been vetted, making it more likely that the full Legislature will have to vote on the issue.
A St. Petersburg Times investigation has found more than 8,000 state employees are collecting a pension and a paycheck for a full-time job, with their total salaries topping more than $300-million.
Many multiple-dippers are low-ranking state employees who retired years ago when pensions were low, and they don't make much money now. Some only work part-time or handle critical jobs while replacements are sought. Many are teachers who have been urged to stick around and help out schools facing a teacher shortage.
But questions surround the more than 200 elected officials and 200 senior managers who have quietly "retired'' and continue working, sometimes drawing six-figure salaries on top of lucrative pension payments. Many remain in the same job where they earned their pension.
Fasano pointed out that during a bad budget year, the state could use that extra $300-million in salaries to help offset drastic budget cuts.
However, Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said such a measure could also prevent the state from dragging some employees out of retirement who may have specialized or technical expertise that the state can't duplicate.
"As well-meaning as it is,'' Alexander said, "this amendment could have the unintended consequences of keeping the state from being able to get essential services."
Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan contributed to this report. Jennifer Liberto can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or email@example.com.