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Proposal Closing State Pension Plan Faces Mounting Criticism, Even From GOP

A bill that would eliminate the state’s pension plan has cleared its first hurdle in the Florida Legislature. But, the proposal (HB 7011) doing away with the state’s most popular retirement option is already facing mounting criticism from current and former state employees, Democrats, and even some Republicans.

The Florida Retirement System is touted as one of the best-funded pensions not just around the nation, but around the world.

“I’m very pleased with how we’re doing. And, I won’t dispute that. But, if we wait, we could be losing some of the tools in out tool box by making minimal changes now,” said Representative Jason Brodeur.

The Sanford Republican is the architect of a proposal that narrows down the state’s current two retirement options to one—leaving new employees hired after January 1st of next year with only one choice: the state’s 401 K type plan known as the investment plan.

It’s also the least popular plan for current employees, with only about 25-percent opting into it. Some critics of the plan worry how the proposal could impact future recruitment. Lisa Henning with the Fraternal Order of Police says it’s already starting to affect law enforcement agencies across the state:

“The changes are already hitting Alachua County in a hard way. They’re losing law enforcement officers, just at the talk of the pension system being changed. They’re losing them to Denver. It’s not a nice thing to hear, but law enforcement officers are being recruited from other states because they will take our certification,” said Henning.

And, there was a similar argument coming from teachers as well.

“We have a great retirement system, and there will be something for you in the end. And, so if you take that away, that’s something I won’t be able to tell the new teachers that are coming in. I have nothing to keep them here," said Teresa Gunter-Jackson, a teacher in Tallahassee.

Others worry about the bill’s financial impact, which is not yet known. But, that didn’t stop Brodeur from calling the proposal up for a vote, which upset many critics of the plan, like Gary Rainey, the President of the Florida Professional Firefighters.

“We really don’t know what the cost is going to be at this point. I’ve heard the explanations that ‘We’re going to get to that.’ And, I’m sure you will. But, it’s a little disconcerting that you would vote and pass a bill out of committee without knowing that information,” said Rainey.

Lawmakers commissioned a study last month to look into the bill’s financial impact, but the results are not yet in. And, Democratic Representative Irv Slosberg says it’s “nonsense” to move forward on a bill that has no concrete numbers.

“This was not a workshop. This is ram it down everyone’s throat. ‘We don’t have any numbers, Irv. We don’t have any actuarial studies, you know they’ll all be coming.’ But, by the time, they come, they’ll be moving it to the next committee and the next and the next. We’re not fools! This is just a cost shift! And, my advice is: Find someone else’s pocket to pick! Leave our workers alone! And, let’s all vote against this bill. It’s the right thing to do. Thank you," he said to the applause of the unions and other critics of the bill.

But, Republican Representative Ritch Workman defended Brodeur’s decision to vet the bill during the House Government Operations Subcommittee.

He’s a supporter of the plan and has spearheaded pension reform proposals of his own, including the new law requiring employees to contribute three-percent toward retirement.

“Although there’s been some comments, that we’re early, we’re ahead of the actuarial study. I get that, but this is a way to get this bill worked a lot longer. If we wait, we’re looking at into session, and then we’ll be accused of ramming this bill through the system at the end,” said Workman.

All parties agree the bill still has a long way to go, and while all Republicans on the panel support the bill, some, like Representative Frank Artiles, says he’s still left with a lot of questions.

“How does it affect our retirees...our current and the ones retiring very soon? How does it affect the state’s obligations? How much is it going to cost to shore it up? How does it affect our special risk categories," asked Artiles.

"These are all very important questions. Unfortunately, the report is not in our hands. And, with that said I will support this moving forward. The caveat being I want answers to these very important questions.”

The measure passed along party lines with Democrats opposed in the House Government Operations Subcommittee Thursday. This only allows the bill to gain committee sponsorship, and a proposed committee bill still needs to be filed.

While the bill is moving forward, the Committee’s Chair Brodeur says he still wants to sit down with everyone and go over their concerns, adding that the results of the study to look at the financial impact will be very important. The study is expected to be completed by February 15th.

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

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.