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Pension bill is ‘dead’ for session

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: May 1, 2013 at 12:19 AM
TALLAHASSEE -

The state Senate on Tuesday killed House Speaker Will Weatherford’s plan for revising the Florida Retirement System.

“I just feel like I didn’t have all the information I needed to make such a big change,” said Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, one of eight Republicans who joined all 14 Senate Democrats in voting down an amendment to align a Senate plan with Weatherford’s.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, backed a plan (HB 7011) to close the retirement system to new membership. New employees of state, county and local governments in the pension plan would have to join a 401(k)-style “defined contribution” plan, similar to the investment-based pension systems popular in the private sector.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, offered his own version (SB 1392) that would have kept the “defined benefit” pension plan open for new hires — except in senior management and elected official ranks — but with financial incentives for opting in to the investment plan.

The vote reflected the accelerated pace typical of the legislative session’s final days. With this year’s session scheduled to end Friday, other issues that appeared to near resolution Tuesday include the so-called parent-trigger bill, a texting-while-driving ban and keeping guns out of the hands of people with mental illness.

But House Democrats slowed proceedings to a crawl Tuesday through a procedural move, requiring the full reading of pending bills, to push for expansion of Medicaid to more poor Floridians using federal dollars. Republican leaders reject the idea.

On the failed pension-revision bill, employees choosing the defined-contribution plan would have paid 2 percent of their earnings for their pensions, rather than the 3 percent Gov. Rick Scott got the Legislature to impose on public employees in 2011.

In the Tampa Bay area, the change would fall heaviest on those hired after Jan. 1 among the 51,000 public school jobs across Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. Thousands more positions would be affected among state agencies in the region, such as the Department of Juvenile Justice and Department of Environmental Protection.

“We had a very good debate about this bill and it died, so it’s dead for this year,” Simpson said after the Senate adjourned.

Officially, Simpson’s bill was “temporarily passed” after the amendment’s rejection — left pending on the Senate calendar — but he and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said there will be no effort to revive it.

In the traditional defined-benefit plan, an employee’s pension is computed on length of service multiplied by a percentage of peak earnings. In a defined-contribution plan, an employee’s pension money is put in an investment account, which may gain or lose over a career.

Employee unions vigorously opposed the change.

Gaetz said he didn’t press any senators to vote for the speaker’s bill.

“I knew it was going to fail,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, who said the change might keep the state from landing top employees. “A majority of the Senate supports the current pension system and we don’t see any reason to start experimenting.”

Here are highlights from other action in the Legislature on Tuesday.

Parent-trigger bill. For the second straight year, the Senate defeated a bill aimed at giving parents a voice in charting a turnaround plan for failing public schools.

The “parent trigger” measure championed by school-choice supporters failed on a dramatic 20-20 vote after a drawn-out debate. Afterward, applause broke out in the gallery, drawing a stern rebuke from the Senate president.

Supporters characterized the proposal as giving parents a “seat at the table” in setting a turnaround course for failing public schools in the Sunshine State. Opponents countered that parents already wield considerable influence in setting each school’s course and called the bill a back-door way to hand public schools over to private companies.

Medicaid expansion. The Senate passed a bill without debate that would accept more than $50 billion in federal money and offer health coverage to more than 1 million Floridians under the federal health law.

The move sent a strong message to the House that the Senate is not backing down on a Medicaid expansion alternative, making a compromise unlikely in the final days of the session. House Republicans have resisted accepting any money tied to President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and instead passed a bill that would use $237 million in state funds to cover about 115,000 residents.

Texting while driving. A statewide ban on texting while driving could be dead after the House amended the bill with only three days left in the legislative session.

The House discussed the bill (SB 52) and adopted the amendment without voting on the bill. The amendment allows police to use drivers’ mobile phone records against them only when texting causes a crash resulting in death or personal injury.

Guns and mental illness. Florida lawmakers wrapped up work on their most notable gun-related bill of the year, a proposal to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill. The Senate passed the bill (HB 1355) on a 38-0 vote, sending it to Scott for his consideration. The measure easily cleared the House earlier.

Advocates included National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer, who said in a statement that the bill closes a “serious gap” in the law, and as a result “dangerous people with mental illnesses will be prohibited from purchasing firearms until they have had successful treatment.”


Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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