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Senate President Gaetz Weighs In On Latest Opposition To Pension Reform Efforts

Sascha Cordner
Senator Greg Evers (R-Baker)(middle) surrounded by law enforcement officers, including Florida Fraternal Order of Police President James Preston (left), at a press conference Thursday, opposing latest pension reform efforts.

State lawmakers are looking at overhauling the Florida Retirement System, ahead of a study that could show whether exempting a certain group of state employees from the pension change is financially sound. But, the so-called special-risk employee “carve-out” is not swaying the opinion of thousands of police officers, who spoke out against the proposal for the first time Thursday.

James Preston retired almost 10 and half years ago, after serving three decades at the Tampa Police Department.

“My son is a deputy sheriff in Manatee County. My son-in-law is a homicide detective in the city of Tampa. So, law enforcement and public service is in our family. I’ve received my pension. I’ve retired after 30 years from the city of Tampa. But, I’m still up here fighting today to make sure my son, my son-in-law, and all of these law enforcement officers that came continue to receive the benefits that they’ve earned,” said Preston.

Preston says he’s against the Republican-led Legislature’s latest pension reform efforts.

The House doesn’t have a proposal as yet, but the Senate’s already moved a couple bills forward. One automatically enrolls all new and current employees into a deferred compensation program, where employees contribute 2-percent of their pay on top of their current retirement contribution and employers do an exact match. Employees can opt out.

The other gets rid of the traditional pension plan for new employees hired after July 1st of next year. They’d be then shifted into either the 401K-style investment plan or a “new cash balance” option, a hybrid of both the investment and traditional pension plan. Current employees won’t be affected, but Preston says that’s a myth.

“There’s no way to close a Florida Retirement System to any significant block of workers that does not destabilize the system,” added Preston.

The Republican leadership say they’re also looking into what they call a “carve out” that exempts first responders from the change. And, Preston says he’s opposed to that too.

“We represent maybe 18-percent of the members of the one-million members that are in FRS. If we’re carved out and all those other members are no longer putting into the system, eventually that system is going to collapse, and it will eventually affect us. We know that if we’re carved out this year, they’re coming back after us a year or two from now, so we stand with the rest of the people in FRS,” said Preston.

Speaking at a press conference Thursday, Preston spoke on behalf of 20,000 law enforcement officers in his capacity as the President of the Florida Fraternal Order of Police.

Lake Worth Democratic Representative Dave Kerner and Baker Republican Senator Greg Evers also joined the FOP in opposition to the bill. Evers, in fact, had joined seven other Republicans and Senate Democrats in helping to defeat last year’s pension reform efforts. He says the only way he’d support this year’s pension reform efforts is give all employees a raise.

“You give state employees—whether they’re wearing a uniform or carrying a gun or sitting behind a desk—you give every employee a 50-percent pay raise, and then I think we can take and redo the FRS because then they would have the money that they can put into the plan,” said Evers.

But, he says since that’s unlikely, the passage of this year’s reform is slim.

“Yeah, the chances of passage last year are higher than it will be for this year. When it passes, it will be snowing in Miami," added Evers, to laughter.

Senate President Don Gaetz says he already knows the votes will be close this year and he respects opponents’ position. Still, following the press conference, he says the FOP’s fears of what could happen in the future shouldn’t affect the present.

“I understand their point of view, but typically I don’t support or oppose legislation because of some hypothetical fear that somebody down some road might do something undefined to me,” said Gaetz.

As for House Speaker Will Weatherford, he says he believes the study looking into the feasibility of the so-called “carve-out” should be coming soon as well as the House’s own proposal.

“We expect the House’s pension reform to be filed in the next few weeks.  Whether it will be filed before the study comes in has not been determined,” said Weatherford, in a statement.

According to both Gaetz’ and Weatherford’s offices, the studies should be completed in three to four weeks.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which represents about 24,000 law enforcement officers, says they’re still not taking a position on the pension reform proposals until they see the results of the study.

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.