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State pension reform effort sets up House-Senate showdown

House Speaker Will Weatherford has been pushing for pension reform for years.

House Speaker Will Weatherford has been pushing for pension reform for years.

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House voted Friday to overhaul the state and local police and firefighter pension systems, setting up another a showdown over the issue between the Senate and Speaker Will Weatherford.

Passing 74-44 along party lines, HB 7181 would shrink the number of people enrolled in the state's $135 billion pension system and steer new hires to private investment plans.

Republicans delivered mixed messages as to why they think the overhaul is necessary. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said it would give employees greater flexibility in choosing a retirement plan that works for them, especially if they decide to switch jobs.

But other Republicans echoed Weatherford's claim that the state's pension system is a "ticking time bomb" that will explode the budget in the future.

"You can't sustain something like a pension plan that will end up breaking the system," said Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole.

Florida's system is widely regarded as one of the nation's best-run public pension systems. Democrats said that with no obvious crisis looming, there is no reason to send employees who fail to choose the public system into private investment plans by default.

"This is the worst time to take anything more from the middle class," said Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg.

For two years, Weatherford has been pushing for a reform championed by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, the group founded by libertarian billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

But last year, Republican senators sympathetic to unions helped defeat his effort by a vote of 22-18. Now, election year politics have further dimmed the measure's prospects.

Gov. Rick Scott, formerly a proponent of reform, has lauded the existing system and advised senators that he's uncomfortable with any major changes to it, according to Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon. Scott is running for re-election against former Gov. Charlie Crist, who has strong backing from school employees. They make up nearly half of those enrolled in the pension plan and oppose Weatherford's plans.

Undeterred, Weatherford merged the pension bill with a more popular municipal pension measure, tying their fates together.

"Both issues are compelling and important," Weatherford said. "If the members of the House and Senate want the local pension bill to pass, they should want a state FRS pension bill to pass because they're probably tied together."

Democrats resent the strategy, which has complicated the municipal bill, SB 246. Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, have worked for two years on the bill, which appears to be in peril as the session winds down to its May 2 close.

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

State pension reform effort sets up House-Senate showdown 04/25/14 [Last modified: Friday, April 25, 2014 9:46pm]
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