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Could Pension Reform In Florida Be In Jeopardy? Ball's In Senate Sponsor's Court

Pension talks between the House and Senate appear to be at an impasse, after the Senate’s pension overhaul bill never got taken up Wednesday. Senate President Don Gaetz agreed to put the bill on hold as both chambers continue to hash out their differences in the two proposals.

The Florida Senate Wednesday had 65 bills on their agenda, including a pension reform bill sponsored by Senator Wilton Simpson, a Republican from Trilby. That bill would affect new state employees and other public workers covered by Florida’s Retirement System. But, the bill never got taken up.

“We did what’s called a TP of the bill, which is temporarily pass the bill so we can continue to work on the bill, and I assume it will be taken up later this week or maybe sometime next week,” said Simpson.

"The [Senate] President made it very clear it is my call on what we do..."

Simpson’s bill was put on hold, he says, for a couple reasons. The main reason is he’s still in talks with House Speaker Will Weatherford, who has another version of a pension bill he’d like to see taken up in the Senate that closes the more popular retirement options for state employees.

The bill favored by the Speaker is sponsored by Republican Representative Jason Brodeur. It eliminates the state’s defined benefit plan or the pension plan for new employees hired after January 1st, 2014. And, the new hires would then automatically be placed in the 401K-style option, called the defined contribution plan. Another name for it is the investment plan.

And, that’s different from the plan that Senator Simpson is proposing. Simpson says his gives new people hired after July 1st of next year with a choice.

“The question is: what’s right? In my bill, I felt like it gave young people options that wanted to be the career firefighter, police officer, teacher, or state employee. It gave them options. Some folks come to work in those positions and they stay a lifetime. And, it gave them the option, that if they chose, they can choose either plan: defined benefit or defined contribution,” said Simpson. 

And, Simpson says because of those differences in the two pension proposals, he’s been hoping for some sort of compromise. But, Weatherford doesn’t look like he will budge.

“Clearly, he [Weatherford] believes his House bill is the better bill, and that’s how it concluded. And, every Republican in the House voted for it. So, it’s not like there was any break in the ranks on the Republicans side. And, so anytime you have a unanimous decision in the House like that, it’s something you have to take a little more seriously,” said Simpson.

So, Simpson says until they can come to an agreement, the status of public employee pension reform is unknown for now.

“Unless we feel like there’s a product that we can put on the floor, and work through the system that’s going to be fruitful, there’s no reason to take up an hour-two hour of bill time to not have an end product that we can all agree on,” Simpson added.

As for Speaker Weatherford, he remains very optimistic.

“I think we certainly would love to see a vote on that bill in the Senate. We passed it out, and so we’re very proud of the product and we think it’s a great product that brings fiscal stability to the state. We of course hope the Senate will give it a chance and I believe that there’s enough time that they can,” said Weatherford.

And, is there a chance for Weatherford’s pension reform package to be taken up? Simpson seems to think so. But, ultimately, the decision lies with Simpson.

“The [Senate] President made it very clear it’s my call on what we do in the Senate. I appreciate the President always backing me up on this pension bill, and he has been very supportive and so has leadership in the Senate. So, anything is possible, and of course, the clock is ticking,” said Simpson.

Meanwhile, Simpson says another reason why he put the pension bill on hold is because he’s awaiting the full results of an actuarial study. That study looks at the effects of his bill and the cost savings to the taxpayers.

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.