The Florida Supreme Court may have reached the correct legal decision Thursday that requiring teachers, firefighters and other public employees to contribute to the state pension system is constitutional. It may even be good politics to bring the state retirement system more in line with retirement plans in private business. But being right legally and politically does not always translate into good public policy.
The court's 4-3 opinion is an unequivocal victory for Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature, and it further erodes what little influence the teacher unions and other public unions had left. It means the state will keep requiring 623,000 public employees to contribute 3 percent of their salaries to the Florida Retirement System. It means a cost-of-living adjustment to their pensions also is gone. And it means legislators and local governments do not face budget deficits that would have been created if the court had ruled for the unions.
But that silver lining does not mean the governor and state legislators deserve praise for their treatment of public employees, misleading rhetoric and state budget priorities. State workers now have gone six years without a general pay raise, yet their pay has been effectively cut 3 percent by the forced pension contribution. Scott and state lawmakers made the change in 2011, at the same time they cut spending to public schools by 8 percent and eliminated thousands of public jobs. The era of good benefits and job security but modest pay for teachers and other public employees is over, the consequences will not be good for public education and government service.
Scott campaigned on state pension reform, but requiring workers to contribute to the retirement system was never about improving the pension fund's health. The money generated by the 3 percent contributions, expected to reach $2 billion by June, just frees that much state money to be spent on other costs. The retirement system already was more than 80 percent funded and touted as one of the most financially solvent in the nation. The state budget was balanced on the backs of public workers instead of by cutting spending further or — God forbid — raising taxes.
Supreme Court justices on both sides of the issue stressed that they were not concluding whether that is good or bad public policy. Writing for the majority, Justice Jorge Labarga found that the state is not forced to keep current public employees on the retirement system as it was created in 1974, when no employee contributions were required. The change to require contributions does not violate constitutional protections for contracts or collective bargaining rights, the court majority concluded. It reaffirmed that any Legislature can alter pension benefits for current employees as long as the changes apply to future benefits and are not retroactive.
While the legal reasoning may be sound, that opens the door to more mischief by state legislators. The governor and state lawmakers should not balance the state budget again by further cutting benefits to teachers and other public workers. The financial picture is getting brighter. A better approach would be to finally provide modest raises to lessen the sting of the pension contributions and invest in a workforce that has felt more than its share of the economic pain.