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PolitiFact Florida | St. Petersburg Times
Sorting out the truth in state politics

Florida the only state where those in retirement system aren't asked to contribute? Rated Mostly True.

Gov.-elect Rick Scott is taking office next month with big plans to cut state spending.

One idea Scott has suggested is to cut $1.4 billion in state pension costs by making government employees contribute to their own retirement. Scott brought up the issue during the campaign and again Dec. 14 in a meeting with state legislators.

"What do you all think about employees contributing to the pension plan?" Scott asked. "We are the only state in the country that state employees don't contribute" to their pensions.

Last year, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the state and local governments contributed nearly $3.4 billion to the retirement fund, the Florida Retirement System. Governments typically contribute between 9 and 10 percent of an employee's annual income toward retirement. Employees are required to contribute nothing.

Is Florida the only state with a system like that? Not quite, according to a PolitiFact Florida review. But Scott isn't far off, either.

PolitiFact Florida individually researched state retirement systems in all 50 states, as well as consulted with Ron Snell, director of state services for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Snell studies state pension and retirement systems.

Most state retirement systems are based on a defined benefit plan — a system where the state multiplies an employee's years of service by salary and by some percentage to arrive at a pension amount. To qualify, employees have to be vested into the system — meaning they work for the state for a certain number of years, often five. They also must contribute some percentage of their pay to the overall pension fund. (In most states, individual contributions don't fund the retirement, but go into the overall pension fund.)

A few states, however, have begun to adopt more private-sector-like 401(k) plans where the employee voluntarily contributes to a retirement fund and the employer either matches a portion of the contributions, or contributes on their own. And some states offer voluntary, optional 401(k) plans on top of a government pension.

With state revenue sources drying up, states have been moving away from 100 percent employer-funded pensions to plans where employees are required to contribute.

Missouri, for instance, will start making employees hired after Jan. 1 contribute 4 percent of their pay to their retirement plan, said Christine Rackers at the Missouri State Employees' Retirement System. Virginia lawmakers this year passed legislation requiring new employees to contribute 5 percent of their pay to their retirement. Current employees are operating under old rules where they do not have to contribute, though Virginia has discussed making them pay, too.

Wisconsin also passed legislation making workers pay toward the pension fund — though their contribution is as little as 0.2 percent.

Where are governments still footing the entire bill?

The largest chunk of state employees in Utah are not required to contribute to their retirement. But a small percentage do.

In Tennessee, state employees and higher education employees are not asked to pay toward their retirement, said spokesman Blake Fontenay. But some local government employees and all K-12 teachers are required to contribute, Fontenay said. The state, back in 1981, discussed either having employees contribute toward their retirement or forgo a pay raise that year, Fontenay said. The government chose no raise.

And in Michigan, employees aren't necessarily required to contribute to their retirement because they have a traditional 401(k) plan, said Kurt Weiss with the state's Department of Technology, Management and Budget. The state contributes the equivalent of 4 percent of an employee's salary into a 401(k) regardless of whether the employee contributes. The state will then match up to an additional 3 percent employee contribution.

A few other states exempt certain, small classes of employees — like public safety employees — from having to contribute to their retirement. But in every case, the bulk of state employees are required to participate.

A note: Our analysis isn't meant to say Florida's retirement plan is a better deal for state employees than employees in other state governments. It's entirely possible that other state employees receive better pensions than Florida workers, even after accounting for employee contributions. Our focus solely was on where employees are asked to contribute to their retirement.

Which brings us back to Scott's statement. In a meeting with state legislators, Scott suggested the state might save money by requiring state employees to contribute to their own retirement. Specifically, he said, Florida is "the only state in the country" where government workers are not required to help fund their retirement.

Scott is largely on the mark.

Florida will be the only state, starting Jan. 1, 2011, where no one in the state retirement system is asked to contribute toward their pension. Two states — Virginia and Missouri — recently switched their retirement system meaning new hires will have to pay toward their retirement, but not existing employees. Michigan doesn't force its employees to participate either, but that state has a more private-sector-like 401(k) program. We rate this claim Mostly True.

The statement

"We are the only state in the country that state employees don't contribute (to their pensions)."

Gov.-elect Rick Scott, in a meeting with state legislators.

The ruling

Scott is largely on the mark. Starting Jan. 1, 2011, Florida will be the only state where no one in the retirement system is asked to contribute toward their pension. But other states make significant exemptions. We rule this Mostly True.

Florida the only state where those in retirement system aren't asked to contribute? Rated Mostly True. 12/22/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 28, 2010 11:03am]
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