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With officers' deaths adding emotion, modified pension reform bill proposed

TALLAHASSEE — A Senate committee proposed a modified bill Thursday that focuses more on shoring up the Florida Retirement System and less on using the savings to close the state budget gap.

Leaders of the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee pushed a compromise that would require most state workers to contribute up to 2 percent of their salaries to their retirement funds, while elected officials, senior management and anyone making more than $75,000 would pay 4 percent of their salary into the retirement system.

The measure by Sen. Jack Latvala, a St. Petersburg Republican, also removes a requirement that new employees in the Florida Retirement System enroll in 401(k) plans and activates employee contributions only to pay for any unfunded liability in the retirement fund. The committee will vote on the proposal during the first week of the legislative session in March.

"It would have a minimal effect on their take-home pay,'' Latvala said, adding that he sought a compromise that could pass the full Senate.

The last time state employees were asked to contribute to their own retirement accounts was in 1974 and, Latvala said, it was at a rate then of 2 percent for most workers.

The changes came after hours of testimony from police, firefighters, teachers and civil servants — and the fifth death in a month of a police officer gunned down in the line of duty.

The death of veteran St. Petersburg police Officer David Crawford on Monday added raw emotion to an already charged issue for many officers.

"If we want to have people take these jobs, we have to make it worth their while,'' Latvala said.

If the Senate committee passes Latvala's amendment, the Senate bill will be in stark contrast to a more radical measure suggested by Gov. Rick Scott. The governor wants to save $1.4 billion by requiring all employees, including police and other high-risk workers, to contribute 5 percent of their salary to their retirement benefits.

"The governor's plan was one to balance the budget, the Senate's plan is to make sure the working men and women of this state have a plan when they retire,'' said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, the Senate budget chief, said that changing pay and benefits for government workers will be used to balance the budget only after the Senate rules out all other attempts at efficiency.

But Barney Bishop, executive director of Associated Industries of Florida, urged the committee to adopt the governor's proposal to require all new employees to enroll in a 401(k) defined contribution plan, pay into their retirement accounts and bring state pension "more in line with the private sector."

"Public employees — all employees — should be thankful that you have a job because there's a million people in Florida that don't have a job,'' he said.

Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Margate Democrat and chairman of the committee, countered that a report from the state Division of Retirement found that closing the traditional defined benefit pension plan to new employees would cost the state rather than save money, because there would be fewer people paying into it to offset costs.

With officers' deaths adding emotion, modified pension reform bill proposed 02/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 24, 2011 9:52pm]
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