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  1. Florida Politics

Pension vote puts some House Republicans in awkward position

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel listens to debate on the House floor on April 30 in Tallahassee.
Published May 18, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — Florida House Republicans tried to close the state's pension system to new employees this year, saying it's a ticking time bomb that could cripple the state's budget for years to come.

But many of those same GOP lawmakers are members of the state pension system themselves, according to a Times/Herald review.

In fact, more than half of House Republicans could see the perks of the pension when they retire, forgoing the riskier 401(k)-style plans they wanted to force upon new state employees.

Several of those same Republicans debated in favor of closing the pension system when it came up for a vote in March. Most of them did not respond to interview requests Friday.

Of the three who did, two said they weren't aware that they were in the pension. A third, Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, said he notified the state this month that he wanted to switch to the 401(k)-style "investment plan."

Spano said Friday that Florida cannot afford to continue adding new employees to the pension.

"The necessity to fund the plan with $500 million from general revenue this year is an example of why we can't continue down this road," he said via email. "We have a responsibility to think and plan ahead on behalf of all of the current and future citizens of the state of Florida."

The pension overhaul, HB 7011, passed along party lines in the House. But it failed in the Senate when a coalition of moderate Republicans joined Democrats who opposed it.

The bill was a priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who believes the pension system is economically unsustainable. Democrats say major changes are unnecessary.

Weatherford and bill sponsor Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, both participate in the 401(k) plan. But many of their colleagues, including Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, Joe Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, and Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, are part of the pension system. All voted to close the system to new workers.

A guaranteed pension has traditionally been part of the compensation package for state workers, who often earn less than workers in the private sector. State and local government employees, teachers, law enforcement officials and firefighters earn an annual pension based on their years of service and their salary.

In 2002, Florida launched the 401(k)-style plan and gave employees the option to choose either one.

Lawmakers enjoy some of the pension's best terms. They accrue credit for years of service at nearly twice the rate of a typical state worker, meaning their retirement income has the potential to be twice as big.

This spring, House members rejected an amendment by Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, that would have ended that inequality. Fasano, who is enrolled in the 401(k)-style plan, voted in favor of closing the pension to new employees.

The decision to join the pension or the 401(k)-style plan is not insignificant.

Under the 401(k) option, workers are given a set amount of money, which is then subject to the whims of the stock market.

The pension, on the other hand, is a guaranteed annual payout.

House members who select the pension and serve eight years stand to earn a yearly retirement check from the state of about $7,200. That number could spike dramatically if lawmakers have other government service — as many do — particularly in positions that pay more.

Ten House member have chosen not to enroll in either of the state retirement plans. Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, said his was a conscious decision.

"And that is not a criticism of anyone that takes it, but I want it to be clear because the people of Florida need to know that there are certain representatives that do not feel that it is appropriate for us as citizen legislators to take any type of pension or health care benefit," he said during floor debate.

Rep. Clay Ingram, R-Pensacola, was one of many who spoke in favor of closing the pension when it was debated in March. "We know the pension model does not work; we see the evidence all over our country," he said.

But Ingram, it turns out, is a member of the pension.

He said Friday that he had no idea at the time he was accruing pension benefits because he had been automatically enrolled. Ingram said doesn't expect to rely on the state to ultimately fund his retirement but will consider switching to the investment plan option.

"I like the freedom of a market-based program anyway," he said.

In March, Rep. Daniel Raulerson, R-Plant City, characterized the pension as a drain on future budgets that could reduce education spending or cause a tax increase.

By Raulerson's logic, he is part of the problem. He is a member of the pension system.

Friday he said he had no idea he wasn't enrolled in the 401(k)-style plan. "I will certainly do that and will make that change," Raulerson said. "Not on the pension side; I shouldn't be."

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@tampabay.com.

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