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State Employees Lose Pension Suit, Ask For Raise

After lawmakers passed a measure in 2011 that would require state employees to contribute three percent of their salary to their retirement, a number of groups launched an effort to get the law declared unconstitutional. But the Florida Supreme Court has upheld the law.  And Florida Education Association lawyer, Ron Meyer, said there's not further appeal possible.

The Association spearheaded the court challenge against the law. And Meyer said the outcome doesn’t bode well for state employees like teachers, law enforcement officers and – full disclosure—public radio reporters who are associated with state universities. Meyer said he disagrees with statements from Florida leaders who are calling the ruling a good thing.  

“I think it’s a great day for Florida families if starvation is a good thing," Meyer said. "The fact of the matter is, a school teacher, a state worker, all of these employees can scarcely afford a three-percent reduction in their pay. All you have to do is talk to these workers and see what impact it has already had on them.”

The average state employee earns about $50,000 a year, according to the site Floridaopengov.org, which is operated by the Foundation for Government Accountability. And Meyer points out, some earn much less. It’s a paycheck hit Vonda Richardson, the interim assistant director of extension at Florida A&M University said she’s not happy about, but is willing to accept.

“On one hand, it’s three-percent that’s taken out of our salaries in a time when economic conditions are kind of tight. But I do understand. I’m originally from Georgia, and typically, their state employees do pay into their teacher’s retirement. So, it’s not a foreign concept to me,” Richardson said.

But Maite Azcoitia, Broward County’s Deputy Attorney said she took her retirement benefits into account when she decided to take a government job.

“When I agreed to come work for the state, or for the county, you agree to a lower salary and one of the reasons for that is because you were counting on this benefit. And you work so many years into the system and then at a later point in time, they change the rules of the game and you still are at a lower salary than you would be if you were in the private industry,” Azcoitia said.

If the court had ruled against the law, it would have left lawmakers with about a $2-billion budget hole to fill. So far, the state has collected almost a billion dollars from state workers and it’s expected to collect about a billion more by the summer. So, now, some, like Florida Education Association attorney Meyer, are saying that should free up some money for state employee raises.

“We hope the governor and the legislature will now take the money they had been holding aside to pay for this decision had it gone the other way, and will indeed give more than lip service to rewarding the public employees in the state,” Meyer said.

And Florida Governor Rick Scott has already talked about the possibility of granting merit based raises.

“I’m going to propose a performance based pay plan again this year for state workers because I think that it ought to be tied to how well they do. So I agree I want to make sure all state workers get paid fairly,” Scott said.

But others say performance based increases aren’t enough for state workers who haven’t seen a pay bump in about seven years. A number of bills that would provide across the board increases for state employees have already been filed for the coming session which begins in March.

Follow @Regan_McCarthy

Regan McCarthy is the Assistant News Director for WFSU Public Media. Before coming to Tallahassee, Regan graduated with honors from Indiana University’s Ernie Pyle School of Journalism. She worked for several years for NPR member station WFIU in Bloomington, Ind., where she covered local and state government and produced feature and community stories.

Phone: (850) 645-6090 | rmccarthy@fsu.edu

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