TALLAHASSEE — After months of calling pension reform a top priority in his inaugural year as Florida House speaker, Will Weatherford could do nothing Tuesday as his plan went down to defeat in the Senate.
A third of Senate Republicans joined Democrats in voting 22-18 against an amendment that would have banned new state workers, teachers and county workers from joining the state's $132 billion pension system, and steer them instead toward private, 401(k)-style investment plans, shifting the risk from taxpayers to workers.
"One of the reasons they work for government is not for the salary," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. "They haven't had raises in six or seven years. It's for the pension and if we want to continue to have the quality of employees that we have, we need to continue to offer that pension."
The setback came at the exact moment Weatherford, 33, faced a filibuster on the House floor among Democrats who wanted to draw attention to the House's refusal to tap federal dollars to give health care coverage to 1 million uninsured Floridians.
"You always know you're never going to get everything you asked for," Weatherford said late Tuesday. "It came up a little bit short, but it was a great debate and I'm grateful to the Senate for giving it an opportunity to be heard."
Weatherford has made much of his concern that the Florida pension system, which is about 86.9 percent funded, poses a dangerous risk to state finances. It's a concern he shares with the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee libertarian think tank. Weatherford's father-in-law, former House Speaker Allan Bense, sits on the boards for both.
But Weatherford couldn't convince members of his own party in the Senate that the pension system should be closed down to new employees. Instead, he got a forceful and emotional pushback from Latvala, a frequent sparring partner, who argued the pension serves as a reliable pillar for lowly paid workers.
During a memorable floor debate, Latvala welled up as he told the story of two Lake City firefighters, Brett Fulton and Josh Burch, who perished in 2011 fighting a blaze. They made about $26,000, he said.
"That's barely the federal poverty level," Latvala said. "They worked for their pension. One firefighter's family was able to collect the survivor's benefit, and he was in his 20s, and his family collects $1,200 a month. That's what's left of their dad. That's what's left of their husband.
"I do not understand why we want to experiment around and why we want to take these people who are protecting us every single day and put them in a system just because it works in private business," Latvala said, pointing out that those in the private sector aren't risking their lives for the public good.
Republicans joining Latvala's insurrection were Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, a former sheriff; Nancy Detert, R-Venice; Miguel Diaz de La Portilla, R-Miami; Greg Evers, R-Baker; Anitere Flores, R-Miami; Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring; and John Legg, R-Trinity.
Latvala openly acknowledged what other Republican leaders in the Senate would not: Weatherford had demanded the vote.
"We all know this is the speaker's priority for the year," Latvala said during debate, addressing his comments to Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. "We all know the speaker asked for an up-and-down vote on this, and that's what we're doing. I appreciate very much your commitment, Mr. President, that once we do this up-and-down vote, once it's down, it goes away and we get on with other business that we have."
Minutes after the vote, Latvala explained that Gaetz promised him that once Weatherford got a Senate vote, the issue wouldn't come up again this year. "Sometimes you're the dog, sometimes you're the hydrant," he said. "I've been telling Will for two or three months that he didn't have the votes over here. Now he sees it, black and white."
Gaetz would not confirm that he had made such a promise.
"Well, I guess if Sen. Latvala said it, it must be true," Gaetz told reporters.
After the failed amendment vote, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, decided to withdraw the overall bill, SB 1392. Unlike Weatherford's preference to require new employees to enroll in private investment plans, Simpson's bill only encouraged them to do so while still allowing them to enroll in the pension system. But after the vote against Weatherford's measure, Simpson gave up.
"There's no support for it in the House," Simpson said. "It's dead."
Times/Herald staff writer Katie Sanders contributed to this report.