Battle shaping up over Gov. Scott's pension proposal

Hal Krantz says it has been years since he brought home a pay raise. After 16 years of teaching, the married Coral Springs Middle School instructor with a daughter in college is struggling to stretch his salary while meeting the soaring costs of healthcare, food and other necessities.

Gov. Rick Scott's plan to compel public employees like Krantz to kick in as much as 5 percent of their paychecks into their pensions is causing quite a bit of angst. This is particularly true of teachers, who traditionally earn modest salaries offset by a broad benefits package, but also state workers, many of whom have not received pay raises in years.

The proposal is included in the budget that Scott will unveil Monday at a rally of tea party supporters in the Lake County community of Eustis.

Employees say the pension measure is the equivalent of a pay cut.

``We give up so much because we love this profession,'' said Krantz. `Now they are cutting even deeper into our pocket.''

Around the nation, governments are reeling from the poor economy and falling tax revenues. Supporters of Scott's plan, which would affect not just state workers but school employees and many municipal workers in the state retirement system, say it's imperative to change gears to keep the state and the pension fund solvent.

They note that for many in the private sector, salaries have fallen, jobs have grown scarce and traditional pensions have long since been replaced by 401(k) accounts that require workers to sock away money for their own retirement.

They point out that other states have already taken the step Scott is proposing. New York, for instance, requires employees to kick in 3 percent of their salary toward funding their pension for a period of 10 years.

Scott estimates it will save the state, which is facing a multibillion-dollar shortfall heading into the legislative session, $2.8 billion over two years.

``It's only fair that if you're going to have a pension plan, you're going to do just like the private sector does,'' Scott said.

Florida's pension system is currently funded by state and local governments contributing the equivalent of between 9 and 10 percent of an employee's income toward retirement. In the case of high-risk workers like police and firefighters, the percentage is higher.

Scott has talked of a 5 percent buy-in by employees -- basically splitting the difference with the state.

How generous is a state pension?

For most employees, after 30 years on the job, the annual stipend is equal to 48 percent of the average of that employee's highest five years of pay, according to the pension fund web site. The average recipient retires around age 60, at which point he or she can begin to collect.

There are currently 655,000 active members of the Florida Retirement System and another 304,000 retired workers receiving benefits. Up until now, those enrolled have not had to contribute any money to their plan.

``It's a pretty radical thing when you start talking about taxing state workers 5 percent of their salary in one year, when the majority of state workers haven't seen raises in five years,'' said Daniel Reynolds, national president of the National Federation of Public and Private Employees.

``While we are all reading and hearing about pension reform proposals with great interest, we don't know what is going to happen,'' BSO spokesman Jim Leljedal wrote in an e-mail. BSO employees are in the state system, as are Miami-Dade police.

``Everybody is on edge right now,'' said John Rivera, president of the Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association.

Rivera predicted Scott's plan, as well as the possibility that new hires could be forced to buy into a system resembling a 401(k), would make staffing the Miami-Dade Police Department problematic.

``They're going to make an already impossible job that much more unattractive,'' he said.

Some civil servants feel as though Scott's proposal vilifies them.

``This whole issue gets to be a cruel myth blaming state employees for the budget deficit,'' said Paul Hunt, a former Coral Gables social worker who retired in November after 17 years. ``These are people who have worked honestly in the community, giving good service, and often taking lower wages now so they could retire with a sense of security.''

Broward Superintendent Jim Notter said the cuts would not only affect the district's 15,500 teachers but cause more hardship for its lowest-paid employees, like bus drivers. ``I believe in a time of economic crisis, it borders on insanity to further take money out of good employees' pockets,'' he said.

In Miami-Dade County, a first-year teacher earns $38,500; a 22-year veteran earns $68,225. For that starting teacher, the 5 percent contribution would be about $163 a month.

Unions have already vowed to fight the proposal, said United Teachers of Dade President Karen Aronowitz. ``What Rick Scott is really saying is let them eat cat food.''

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