Senate panel considering $69.8B Fla. budget bill

Published: Friday, April 1, 2011 at 8:25 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 1, 2011 at 8:25 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE — Pay cuts for teachers and other employees that are part of appropriations bills in both Florida legislative chambers could help offset deep public school spending reductions, a budget leader said as the Senate's version cleared committee Thursday.

Sen. David Simmons, who chairs a subcommittee overseeing school spending, echoed a position laid out earlier by Republican Gov. Rick Scott's budget director before the Senate Budget Committee approved its $69.8 billion appropriations bill and related legislation.

Pension bills in both GOP-controlled chambers would require about 655,000 teachers, state workers and local government employees to contribute 3 percent of their salaries to the Florida Retirement System, now completely supported by taxpayers.

The Senate panel approved its proposed pension bill (SB 7094) on a largely party-line vote — with all but one Republican in favor and all Democrats against — after public employees and union officials argued that lawmakers are balancing the budget on the backs of state workers.

Teachers, police officers, firefighters and other public employees said they're already underpaid compared to other states and have gone without pay raises from three to eight years.

"Enough already," said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union. "This is a tax on our income. We do not get rich while we work and the changes to our retirement system will guarantee that we will be poor until the day that we die."

The Senate budget bill won committee approval on a largely party-line roll call with only two Democrats joining all Republicans in voting for the measure.

Simmons, R-Maitland, said Florida school districts could use money saved from state-ordered pay cuts for teachers and other employees, as well as left-over federal stimulus dollars, to offset almost all of the sharp spending cuts they're facing.

Budget bills in both chambers would make deep cuts in education, health care and other services besides the pension changes to close a projected $3.75 billion gap between recession-depressed revenues and high-priority to critical state needs in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The House's budget, which cleared a committee Wednesday, would cut school spending by $463.13, or 6.8 percent. The Senate plan would cut about $40 million less, or 6.2 percent. Scott has proposed a 10 percent cut in per student spending and a 5 percent pension contribution from public employees.

Simmons said the 3 percent employee pension contribution would save school districts $678 million. Lawmakers last year also urged the districts to save $554 million in unexpected stimulus money they received from a federal jobs bill for next year, and Simmons said most of them did.

Tapping those two funding sources would reduce the spending cut in the Senate bill to about 0.5 percent, Simmons said.

"It's essentially level funding," he said.

The state, meanwhile, would save about $710 million from having employee make pension contributions.

Contributing 3 percent would cost the average public employee making $39,000 a year nearly $1,200.

Another key provision in the Senate pension bill would prevent employees hired July 1 or later from joining the existing defined benefit retirement plan, which guarantees lifetime payments.

Instead, they would be offered optional defined contribution plans similar to a 401(k). The length and level of benefits would depend on how good a job each employee does in choosing investments.

The benefits change is being pushed by Scott but is not in the House's pension bill (HB 1405). The Republican governor's argument is that public employees should be treated the same as workers in the private sector, which is moving to defined benefit plans.

Public employees and union officials who testified before the Senate panel argued that this is a false comparison. They said they've gone without pay raises in exchange for better benefits and that many work jobs with no private sector equivalent.

"There's not many private jobs you're supposed to get shot at," said Lisa Henning, lobbyist for the Police Benevolent Association.

The House bill also does not include a Senate provision that would reduce cost-of-living pension adjustments for existing employees and end them for new hires.

The Senate proposal was offered by Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who stressed that it likely won't be the Legislature's final product but would put the chamber in posture to bargain with the House.

The panel chose Alexander's bill over another measure proposed by the Senate Oversight and Accountability Committee, which would have required only those public employees making more than $40,000 to contribute 2 percent to the pension plan — or 4 percent if they make more than 75,000. That would have excluded 75 percent of state workers.

Both chambers' budget bills would increase state and community college tuition, the House by 5 percent and the Senate by 8 percent.

The House also includes a 5 percent tuition increase for state university students. Most of the schools, though, are expected to opt for bigger increases. State law lets them raise tuition by 15 percent annually, including whatever increases the Legislature orders, with approval of the Board of Governors.

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