Local News

Pension reform debated

— With no certain answers about whether the House will push changes to the Florida Retirement System in 2015, supporters of local pension reform are hoping to give their proposal a clearer shot next year.

Outgoing House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, for two years pushed to overhaul the Florida Retirement System, known as FRS, which provides retirement benefits to hundreds of thousands of state, county and school employees.

But House Majority Leader Steve Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican set to succeed Weatherford after the November elections, said “it’s just too early to tell” whether the state pension issue will return in 2015.

“I think a lot of topics are on the table right now,” Crisafulli told The News Service of Florida. “... I can’t sit here and take any issues off the table at this moment in time.”

The status of the FRS has been a flashpoint in the Capitol for years, pitting conservative lawmakers and business groups against moderate Republicans, Democrats and labor unions.

In 2011, lawmakers approved a measure requiring workers to contribute 3  percent of their salaries to the retirement plan.

Two years later, Weatherford sought to close the traditional pension plan to new employees and push them into a 401(k)-style plan.

In 2014, he and Senate supporters pushed for changes expected to encourage workers to enter the investment plan, though they would have left the traditional pension open.

While the 2011 legislation passed, moderate GOP senators blocked Weatherford’s proposals in each of the last two sessions.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, barely masked his disappointment last month after the upper chamber defeated the latest version of pension legislation.

“At this point, the best thing we can probably do is — because of the opposing forces ­— is to allow a Detroit-type moment to happen and then fix it from there,” Simpson said, in a reference to dramatic changes in Detroit’s retirement benefits after the city went bankrupt.

Meanwhile, efforts to overhaul local police and firefighter pension plans, many of which are less sturdy than the state plan, have repeatedly become entangled in the FRS debate, most clearly in 2014, when the House melded the two measures together in one bill.

The most recent version of the local legislation had nearly universal support, including the backing of the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Police Benevolent Association.

The league and the PBA had been on opposite sides of the issue, which dealt with how local governments can use insurance-premium taxes that bankroll the pension plans.

Essentially, the bill would have repealed restrictions in state law on how the premium taxes are spent, so long as local governments and unions can come to agreement.

If there is no agreement, the taxes would be sifted through a formula detailing how much should be spent on existing benefits and how much should be given to workers in a separate retirement account.

The idea was proposed by Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Chairman Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, after months of trying to bring the cities and the unions to the table.

Asked this week how much the FRS changes had to do with the death of the local legislation, Ring said: “Everything. 100 percent.”

Ring said supporters of the plan will take another shot at the bill in 2015.

“I think we have to try to solve the local pension reform problem, because it’s not fixed and it’s broken,” Ring said.

Matt Puckett, executive director of the Florida PBA, said the groups that supported the bill this year will return next year to try to win passage for it, hopefully keeping it separate from any FRS legislation that might be introduced.

“I think everybody sees a need for it to be resolved,” he said.