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Florida pension reform fails again despite powerful backing

TALLAHASSEE — For the second year in a row, one of House Speaker Will Weatherford's top priorities, an overhaul of the state's pension system, failed on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Last year, the plan to steer more state employees toward private pension funds and away from the traditional defined benefit plan was defeated in a 22-18 vote by Democrats and Republicans backed by unions. This year, the measure didn't even get that far. After a series of legislative maneuvers showed that there was little support for SB 1114, the sponsor decided not to keep it on life support for the final two days of the session.

"It's dead," said Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. "We've had enough debate on this. I think we've made our points on both sides. The wishes of the Senate were done today."

It was an inauspicious end to what Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, had identified as a major goal on becoming speaker in 2012. With his term to end this year, the termed-out lawmaker must admit defeat on a popular issue for a conservative base that includes the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity.

Weatherford, who heard of the bill's demise before the unveiling of his official House portrait, conceded defeat is likely. "For two years we've been trying to get a pension bill done, we've always known that it wasn't going to be an easy lift," Weatherford said. "Nothing is ever dead until Day 60 (of the session, which is Friday) but there's no question that the bill is probably in some pretty big trouble. When you try to take on big policy issues, you're not going to be able to score on every single one, and so I'd be disappointed if the bill doesn't pass, but I think overall we're having a fantastic session."

SB 1114 would have required elected officials, except judges, to enroll in 401(k)-style investment plans that are already offered. They could not get into the state's $135 billion pension plan, which provides a guaranteed benefit, unlike the private investment plans. All other employees would have nine months to choose between the two plans. Those not making a choice would default into the private investment plans, reducing pension membership over time.

Simpson and Weatherford both represent Pasco County, they work together away from the Legislature (Simpson pays Weatherford about $32,000 to work part time as an environmental consultant in his private business), and both say the pension program could bankrupt Florida.

But it is regarded as one of the better public plans in the nation. Even the House sponsor, Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said chances of it going under are remote. Rather, the purpose of the measure was to provide employees a better choice for retirement, he said.

But employees already can choose a private fund, causing Democrats and several Republicans with large union constituencies to question the need for reform. The pension plan can't go bankrupt unless 86 percent of state employees retire at the same time, said Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando. "Short of a zombie apocalypse, under what scenario would that ever happen?" he asked.

Before breaking for lunch, the Senate voted 21-15 against considering HB 7181, which combined the state pension overhaul with a measure concerning municipal pension plans that already passed the Senate unanimously in a separate bill. Weatherford linked the two, hoping to gain support for his priority.

Senate President Don Gaetz tried a legislative maneuver that might have brought the combined bill to a floor vote, but Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, intervened. "We have to respect the process," Latvala said of the attempt to merge the two bills with little discussion. "We have rules, we need to respect them. … That's just the way it is."

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

Florida pension reform fails again despite powerful backing 04/30/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2014 9:27pm]
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