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Pension reform championed by conservatives running into trouble

TALLAHASSEE — Few issues would seem to score higher among conservatives than public pension reform.

Shrinking the defined benefits that public employees receive and steering them into private retirement plans has long been championed by groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the James Madison Institute and Americans for Prosperity, founded by billionaire libertarians David and Charles Koch.

But as Tuesday's Florida Senate Appropriations Committee meeting showed, pension reform is hardly a conservative litmus test. A bill that would make significant changes to the state's $135 billion pension system barely survived by a narrow 10-8 vote, with three Republicans joining Democrats in opposition.

"One of the things that concerns me is the continued effort to change the Florida retirement system," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who voted against the measure. "I'm tired of scaring our (state and school) employees every year, and hammering at them, and threatening the one thing they have."

Latvala, like senators such as Greg Evers of Baker and Charlie Dean of Inverness, possesses staunch conservative bona fides and also represents many government workers who depend on the pension for retirement.

These legislators consistently side with constituents who claim that the defined-benefit pension system should be left alone.

But that view collides with the ambitions of Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. In his two years as the leader of the lower chamber, Weatherford has made pension reform a priority, playing to a conservative base that believes the pension system eventually will bankrupt the state.

Last year, the Senate defeated a much more radical overhaul of the system in a 22-18 vote. This year, as Weatherford's influence as outgoing speaker wanes, senators have seemed even less receptive, with Evers declaring last month that it would snow in Miami before reform passed.

In fact, it was a Democrat, Sen. Jeremy Ring of Margate, who saved SB 1114 on Tuesday, only because he wanted to keep alive his municipal pension bill.

For four years, Ring has worked on that measure, aimed at averting what he says is a more serious financial crisis than anything facing the state's pension system. It passed Senate Appropriations 16-0 on April 10.

But on Easter Sunday, Weatherford merged his chamber's versions of the state and municipal pension measures, a maneuver to revive his own efforts.

So if Ring had voted against the Senate bill Tuesday, he also would kill his bill in the House.

"I'm not ready, with a week and a half left in session, to kill my local bill," Ring said, but added he still might vote against the state pension bill.

The last-minute maneuverings were dumped on senators in the form of a 53-page amendment filed Monday.

"It's disrespectful," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who voted no on the measure. "Leadership's emergencies aren't our problems. Nobody knows really what's in this bill, and this forces us to vote on it. We're now giving new life to a dead issue."

Lee said Gov. Rick Scott, who faces re-election in November, told senators last month he didn't want major changes to the pension system.

"He was very concerned with the magnitude of the proposed changes," Lee said.

A Scott spokesman, John Tupps, wouldn't confirm the governor's position.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@tampabay.com.

Pension reform championed by conservatives running into trouble 04/22/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 22, 2014 10:06pm]
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