TALLAHASSEE -- Teachers, firefighters, police and state employees may soon be contributing to their pensions for the first time under a bill passed Thursday by Florida lawmakers amid union opposition.
The measure passed mostly along party line in the House on a 78-39 vote and 26-13 in the Senate where scores of disgruntled union workers watched from the gallery. The bill (SB 2100) was amended to conform to the House bill and now goes to conference.
In the Senate, four Republicans voted against it while two South Florida Democrats, Sens. Nan Rich of Weston and Jeremy Ring of Margate, voted for the bill.
The legislation would establish a tiered-system requiring higher paid employees to put a larger percentage of their earnings into their retirement. The bill (SB 2100) calls for contributions of 2 percent for the first $25,000 of pay, 4 percent for the next $25,000 and 6 percent for anything more. Legislators and statewide elected officials, the governor and cabinet, would pay an additional percentage point to their earnings, capped at 7 percent.
“I wish we didn’t have to go there, but I think it’s the responsible thing to do when you look at the whole broad set of issues,” Senate budget chief JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said.
The Senate vote was taken while the union workers looked on. They swarmed across the Capitol during the day, some with signs that read “Pink Slip Rick,” in their disapproval of new Gov. Rick Scott. Employee unions have opposed the pension changes, claiming Florida’s retirement system is one of the nation’s strongest.
“We are being forced to pay a tax on our salaries to bail out Florida,” said Gary Rainey, president of Florida Professional Firefighters.
“Hundreds of public sector workers visiting the Capitol today watched majorities in both the House and Senate choose to protect tax exemptions, loopholes and subsidies for the big business lobby over teachers, firefighters, police officers and anyone who chooses to serve the people of this state,” said Florida AFL-CIO President Mike Williams., “Today’s votes will only increase our struggle.”
The bill is also not as rigid as Scott’s original proposal that would have required all public employees contribute 5 percent of their earnings into their retirement.
The Democratic leader in the House, Rep. Ron Saunders of Key West, said requiring state employees to pay into their retirement was nothing short of an income tax on state workers.
The contribution requirements would help law- makers overcome a budget deficit of $3.75 billion, effectively reducing the wages of teachers, state workers and many local government employees including police and firefighters. A 3 percent contribution rate would save about $1 billion.
The Senate also agreed to delay for five years the repeal of a program that lets retirement-eligible employees continue working, collecting both a salary and retirement benefits.