As national news carries almost daily headlines about faltering state pension funds, here's good news for the Florida Retirement System: No longer will public employees be allowed to game an already generous retirement system by "retiring" for just 30 days and then returning to work in order to double dip - collect both a pension and a paycheck. The reform took more than a year to pass the Legislature and another year to become law, but finally taxpayers' interests prevailed.
Now under the law, public employees who begin collecting their pension after July 1 will forfeit their pension payments if they return to their employer within six months. The reform, pushed by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill, will curb the worst abuses of the system.
A series of articles by St. Petersburg Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan that began in 2008 disclosed that more than 225 elected officials and more than 9,000 members of the retirement system were collecting both pensions and paychecks. Some were even collecting two pensions and a paycheck while earning credit toward a third pension. They included schoolteachers, prison officers and sheriff's deputies.
But the most egregious and offensive cases involved highly paid elected and appointed officials - from sheriffs and judges to community college presidents and county property appraisers - who thoroughly gamed the system. First they would enter the state's generous five-year deferred retirement program where they would collect a wad of cash upon retirement in addition to their pension benefit. Then 30 days later - often without any notice to the public that they were ever "retired" - they would quietly return to work so they could still collect hefty paychecks as well.
Many double-dippers defended the practice, saying they were just getting their due without any harm to the taxpayer. They argued if they really retired, someone else would just be hired to take their place. And many legislators, themselves potential candidates for double-dipping in the future, also resisted making changes.
But such rationalizations ignored the fact that any replacement employee hired for non-elected jobs would likely be younger and command a lower salary, reducing taxpayers' burden and potentially the ranks of the state's unemployed. Some would not have been replaced at all. What's more, every pension dollar paid reduces the pension fund's balance, ultimately impacting what rate it will charge taxpayers to remain actuarially sound.
Floridians - most of whom can't even conceive of such a generous pension from a private employer - understood that. This is good reform, even if it took far too long to take effect.