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5 companies get shot at retirement accounts

The number of suits crowding the Capitol complex Wednesday could rival the stock at the local Men's Wearhouse.

Lobbyists wearing dark-blue and charcoal paced the floor, hoping to bring home a piece of the state's $100-billion retirement fund pie _ and give public employees the chance to manage their own investments.

The hired guns didn't leave disappointed.

The state Board of Administration voted to start contract negotiations with five companies to provide a variety of investment advice, records and products to some 600,000 state and local government employees. A sixth company was added to provide limited brokerage services.

Eventually, the state hopes to let as many as five companies offer investment advice and 401(k)-style retirement options. The board is scheduled to approve the contracts at the end of the month.

"We pretty much got what we had hoped to get," said Miami lobbyist Ron Book, who represents Fidelity, one of the companies the state agreed to negotiate with.

Wednesday's three-hour discussion capped what has been a year and a half of legal challenges, fights within the Legislature and a feeding frenzy for high-powered lobbyists representing companies hoping for the chance to advise state employees on their retirement investments.

Between $8-billion and $33-billion is expected to move from the state's roughly $100-billion traditional plan into individual investment accounts beginning June 1, 2002. Fidelity, VALIC, ING Aetna, Nationwide and Prudential were picked for contract talks, with Safeco tagged on to offer a self-directed brokerage account option.

State board members Gov. Jeb Bush, Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher and Comptroller Robert Milligan voted for the negotiations despite warnings by board director Tom Herndon that the options would burden state employees with too much cost and confusion.

Herndon has angered some lawmakers and lobbyists with his approach to how the state should manage the new retirement plan, which is considered a model for other states and possibly the national Social Security system.

Herndon has favored an "unbundled" approach, in which the companies that provide investment education and record keeping generally are not the same ones that provide the actual investment products, thus assuring that employees get the most objective advice possible.

But some lobbyists and lawmakers have fought to add more "bundled providers" to the mix _ mutual fund and insurance companies that provide clients both investment options and education, account management and other services. Even if that costs more, proponents have argued, employees should be able to make that choice.

"This will give state and other government employees a choice," said Rep. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who led the call for employees to have the choice offered by bundled providers.

Under the new plan, employees will have the option to transfer out of their traditional state-managed retirement plans, which guarantee a particular benefit. They could choose instead a 401(k)-style account that would be riskier but potentially more lucrative, depending on how an employee invests and manages his or her funds.

But some state officials argue that Florida has an obligation to make decisions that are in the best interest of employees or it can be sued. Milligan wants to make sure Florida is protected and asked Herndon to consider that as he works out contract negotiations with the companies the board short-listed Wednesday. Milligan wants the state to be able to fire companies that don't perform well.