Monday, October 15, 2018
Politics

Florida Supreme Court upholds law requiring state workers to contribute 3 percent to pension plan

TALLAHASSEE — In a major victory for Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida Supreme Court narrowly ruled against state workers in allowing the state to retain the 3 percent levy on their salaries to offset the investment into the Florida Retirement System.

The 4-3 decision allows lawmakers to avoid what they expected could be a nearly $2 billion budget hole in the 2013-14 budget year caused by having to pay back workers. It also means that state and local workers in the Florida Retirement System will see their salary cuts remain indefinitely and will no longer receive cost-of-living adjustments to their retirement accounts.

The lawsuit, Scott vs. Williams, was filed by the Florida Education Association after lawmakers passed and Gov. Scott signed the pension bill into law. It took effect July 1, 2011.

The ruling effectively shifts Florida's retirement system from a noncontributory to a contributory pension plan for the 623,000 workers in the system, including teachers, firefighters, police and other state and local government employees.

The annual savings to the state is estimated at $861 million a year.

Scott and legislative leaders hailed the ruling as victory for Florida taxpayers, while unions decried it as a short-sighted attempt to balance the state budget on the backs of state workers.

"The court's ruling today supports our efforts to lower the cost of living for Florida families," Scott said in a statement. "This means even more businesses will locate and grow in our state, which creates even more opportunities for Floridians to live their version of the American dream."

State Senate President Don Gaetz said the changes were necessary "to maintain a sound retirement system" and that "Florida taxpayers can no longer bear the full cost of this benefit."

But Ron Meyer, an attorney who argued the case for the FEA, challenged Scott's rosy view.

"It's a great day for Florida families if starvation is a good thing,'' he said. "The fact of the matter is a schoolteacher, a policeman, a state worker, all these public employees, can scarcely afford a 3 percent reduction in their pay.''

The decision, written by Justice Jorge Labarga, overturned a lower court ruling that declared the pension changes unconstitutional because they impaired the contractual rights of the FRS employees, took private property without full compensation and violated employee collective bargaining rights.

Labarga cited a 1981 ruling involving the Florida Sheriffs Association and upheld the constitutional right of the Legislature to revise the retirement contract with existing state workers.

"We recognized the authority of the Legislature to amend a retirement plan prospectively, so long as any benefits tied to service performed prior to the amendment date are not lost or impaired,'' the ruling said, noting that the court "took special care in Florida Sheriffs" not to bind future legislatures.

Justices R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and James E.C. Perry strongly disagreed with the ruling. Lewis and Perry wrote separate dissenting opinions. Justice Barbara Pariente wrote a concurring opinion.

Lewis accused the state of failing to meet its burden to prove it had a good reason to break the contract with state employees "because facing a budget shortfall is not enough."

He said the state's action "constitutes a confiscation of private property of a few for a public use" and concluded that all public employees "who were members of the FRS prior to July 1, 2011, have had their contract rights violated.''

Perry said the action by lawmakers amounted "to an insufferable and unconstitutional 'bait and switch' at the expense of public employees.''

But Pariente defended the ruling and, in her concurring opinion, said the decision should not be viewed narrowly.

"Ultimately, I recognize the frustration of state employees who have in effect experienced a 3 percent reduction in their net pay as a result of the Legislature's changes to the retirement plan,'' Pariente wrote. "Indeed, these changes affect judges and all judicial branch employees as well. However, this case is not a referendum on the Legislature's policy decision."

Union officials disagreed with the ruling, some vowing to use it to replace the governor and Republican-led Legislature in the 2014 election.

"Balancing the state budget on the backs of middle-class working families is the wrong approach for legislative leaders and the governor to take,'' said FEA president Andy Ford. "The 2014 campaign begins today."

Matt Puckett of the Florida Police Benevolent Association said that while members "obviously are disappointed" they hope to keep future pension system reforms to a minimum.'

Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, said the decision will mean that about $2.5 million will be taken out of the local economy to pay for the retirement contribution of the 3,100 employees in the county system.

Lawmakers argued at the time that the change was needed to fill a $3.6 billion budget gap and bring Florida in line with 47 states that require their government workers to contribute to their pension plans. The savings were then plowed into the budget, not into the retirement fund.

Union leaders said they hope the improved fiscal conditions will allow lawmakers to grant state employees pay raises for the first time in six years.

The Senate budget chief, Joe Negron, R-Palm City, said the issues aren't linked: "We're well aware that state workers haven't had a raise in six years, as is the case with the private sector. It's one thing we'll consider."

But some lawmakers are already viewing the money as a budget windfall.

The House budget chief, Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, said that if current conditions hold, the ruling provides lawmakers with needed certainty this budget year and "Florida will be able to have a more normal budget."

Times staff writers Michael Van Sickler and Danny Valentine contributed to this report.

Comments
Candidates for Pinellas commission race pause to help with natural disasters

Candidates for Pinellas commission race pause to help with natural disasters

As Election Day nears, the candidates for Pinellas County Commission have shifted from campaigning to helping residents deal with the aftermath of natural disasters.Democrat Amy Kedron held a town hall meeting and helped draft policies for businesses...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Trump calls on blacks to ‘honor’ him with votes, then praises Confederate general Robert E. Lee

Trump calls on blacks to ‘honor’ him with votes, then praises Confederate general Robert E. Lee

LEBANON, Ohio - President Donald Trump praised the Confederate general Robert E. Lee whilst asking African-American voters to "honor us" by voting for him at an Ohio rally which included an unexpected and provocative monologue on America’s Civil War ...
Published: 10/13/18
Carlton: Playing politics when a hurricane’s coming? There oughta be a law

Carlton: Playing politics when a hurricane’s coming? There oughta be a law

Maybe Florida needs a new law. The Disaster Decency Bill, we could call it.Because given the current political divide wider than the Gulf of Mexico, we might need it to mandate what has long been a tradition of coming together in the face of disaster...
Published: 10/12/18
MSNBC's Katy Tur hosting live panel with USF students during 'Battleground College Tour'

MSNBC's Katy Tur hosting live panel with USF students during 'Battleground College Tour'

MSNBC's Katy Tur will speak to USF students during a live panel in front of USF's Marshall Student Center on Friday from 2 to 3 p.m.
Published: 10/12/18
Monica Lewinsky comes to Tampa on Monday to talk #MeToo, media scrutiny

Monica Lewinsky comes to Tampa on Monday to talk #MeToo, media scrutiny

TAMPA — Monica Lewinsky, an anti-bullying social activist best remembered as the White House intern whose affair nearly brought down a presidency, will be in Tampa on Monday to deliver the keynote address at the 17th annual Franci Golman Rudolph Scha...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Retired Tampa cop gunning for Hillsborough sheriff’s job touts outsider status

Retired Tampa cop gunning for Hillsborough sheriff’s job touts outsider status

One day this summer Gary Pruitt delivered a two-minute pitch to Plant City voters, describing what could change if he were picked to be Hillsborough County’s next sheriff. Among his promises: He would diversify the ranks. But the uniformed competitor...
Published: 10/11/18
Joe Henderson: It's getting easier getting to Tampa but try getting around once you're here

Joe Henderson: It's getting easier getting to Tampa but try getting around once you're here

If you haven’t been to Tampa International Airport in a while, do yourself a favor and go. The place is sleek, well organized, and has the look of an airport you might expect to see in some exotic city – which, I guess, we can say Tampa...
Published: 10/11/18
Carlton: Job one in Straz campaign to be Tampa’s mayor? Show up

Carlton: Job one in Straz campaign to be Tampa’s mayor? Show up

Tampa philanthropist and gazillionaire David Straz has gotten lots of deserved accolades for his acts of generosity over the years.His name graces the downtown performing arts center in lights and adorns the sign at a manatee hospital at Tampa’s zoo ...
Published: 10/10/18
Daniel Ruth: Whatever degree she may or may not have, mayor qualifies in chutzpah

Daniel Ruth: Whatever degree she may or may not have, mayor qualifies in chutzpah

Perhaps the tip-off Temple Terrace Mayor Mel Jurado's alleged doctoral degree was (ahem) about as worthless as a Venezuelan $1 bill was when she started pimping her dubious bona fides on her personalized license plate, "DRMEL." Really? Not....
Published: 10/10/18
What will $241 million get you? Lots of stuff, including a couple of fire stations you may have thought you already paid for

What will $241 million get you? Lots of stuff, including a couple of fire stations you may have thought you already paid for

Pasco County voters face four local referendums on the November ballot.
Published: 10/10/18