State News
7:11 pm
Thu May 1, 2014

Pension Bill Backers, Opponents Waiting Until Session's End Before Declaring Effort Dead

Sen. Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) confirming Thursday that his state pension reform effort is dead in the Florida Legislature this year.
Credit Sascha Cordner / WFSU-FM

Listen to the story as bill supporters and opponents weigh in!

Hear what happened when the bill's sponsor put the bill on hold Thursday!

The sponsor of a measure aimed at overhauling the state’s pension system says that effort’s dead, but bill supporters and opponents alike say they won’t declare the win or loss until the 2014 Legislative Session comes to an end.

It’s Day 59 of the 60-day legislative Session. But, with session coming close to close, a procedural move by Clearwater Republican Senator Jack Latvala Wednesday may have blocked this year’s effort to overhaul the state’s pension system.

“Well, the maneuvers that took place on pension reform at this point look pretty promising. Unfortunately, we don’t get real excited until the handkerchief falls on the final day, because they always maneuver to get what they want. So, we’re not giving up,” said Andy Ford.

Ford is the  President of the Florida Education Association, which represents thousands of teachers. He says while his group is taking a wait-and-see approach, they still appreciate Senator Latvala’s efforts. Latvala was instrumental in causing the death of last year’s pension reform effort.

This year’s pension reform effort—similar to last year’s—essentially would have eliminated the traditional pension plan for newly elected officials under the Florida Retirement System, and would steer them into the other retirement option known as the 401 K style investment plan.

It also would have changed the vesting period for newly hired employees in the pension plan and changed the retirement default from the current pension plan to the investment plan retirement option for those who hadn’t picked either within nine months of employment.

That effort was later merged together with a non-controversial bill to reform a troubled local government pension system in the House, over the objection of Democrats and public employee unions, like the FEA.

“The local pension issue is something that everybody’s been working on for years in order to try and improve the current pension system,” said Ford. “And, unfortunately, that bill got tied up with the state pension issue which doesn’t need any changes, doesn’t’ need any reform, it’s working fine, it’s actuarially sound, and they just want to tinker with it because they want to. And, there’s no need. We have one of the best funded retirement systems in the country.”

“We always hear it said that it’s in better shape than in some other states, and it’s true. It’s funded roughly at 85-percent…even so, the Legislature has to kick in more money every year to see that it’s up to snuff and it’s actuarially sound, that it will be able to pay its obligations,” said Bob Sanchez.

Sanchez is the James Madison Institute's policy director and a supporter of state pension reform.

“Well, as Yogi Berra once said, it’s not over until it’s over. However, it does appear that not much will be achieved this year in pension reform, and that’s too bad really,” added Sanchez.

Still, he says he hopes the Legislature will revisit the issue.

“You know, media pundits are always praising politicians who think of the next generation instead of the next election,” said Sanchez. “This year, we had some who were really doing that, the House Speaker among others, that wanted to save Florida from ever facing the type of predicament faced by Detroit and some other places, Jefferson County, Alabama, and several cities in California, that have basically gone bankrupt, and are unable to fund their pensions.”

And, Trilby Republican Wilton Simpson, the bill’s Senate sponsor, shared similar thoughts.

“You know, I’ve heard a lot of people say a lot of little things, like ‘you don’t fix a roof, you know, when it’s raining outside, right?' And, I think when you look at the pension bill, what  I was wanting to do, in the future, it would have been a whole lot better bill than what I think is going to have to happen…truth of the matter is, I hope I’m wrong,” said Simpson.

Though Simpson’s bill was on Thursday’s Senate schedule, he confirmed that the effort would not be taken up this year.

“We have taken that out of consideration for this year. It’s not officially out of consideration. But we’re not going to bring it back up,” Simpson added.

However, he says it’s not much of a victory for opponents of his effort since he’s afraid the Legislature will have to make drastic changes in the future because the pension system may not be as sound later on.

As for House Speaker Will Weatherford, who made this a priority while he’s been leader of his chamber, he remained upbeat, following Wednesday’s House session.

“Nothing’s ever dead until Day 60, but there’s no question that the bill is probably in some pretty big trouble. You know, when you try to take on some big policy issues, you’re not going to score on every single one, and so I would be disappointed if the bill doesn’t pass, but I would still say overall, I think we’re having a fantastic session,” said Weatherford, speaking to a group of reporters.

The stand-alone local pension reform bill recently passed the Senate and was sent over to the House to consider, and Weatherford says he’s amenable to the idea. Meanwhile, Simpson says he too believes the House should take up the local pension bill. But, will he bring back the state pension issue again?

“You know, I don’t anticipate that. What will happen now is we’ll go back home, back to the district, and we’ll formulate next year’s plan based on the concerns from the district.”

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.