Pension battle set up as Senate bill goes to floor

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A pension bill headed toward the Senate floor could spark a confrontation with House leaders over the future of the retirement system, though senators say they’re confident they can come up with a compromise.

On a nearly party-line vote, the Senate Appropriations Committee sent the measure (SB 1392) to the Senate floor. Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, joined 13 Republicans on the panel in supporting the bill; the other five Democrats opposed it.

But the Senate proposal has attracted more support than a more contentious House plan that would shut the traditional, “defined benefit” plan to new public employees and force them into a 401(k)-style “defined contribution” system.

Instead, the Senate proposal would change the default for employees who don’t select a plan in a set period of time to the defined contribution system, lengthen the vesting period for employees who choose the defined benefit plan and give a discount on contributions to employees who enter the investment option.

“Compared to what we might be facing from the other chamber, this is certainly a much better option for us,” said Gary Rainey, president of Florida Professional Firefighters.

Some retired workers still oppose the changes in the Senate bill, but the unions who appeared at the committee meeting largely backed the overhaul.

Republicans knocked away a handful of Democratic amendments, including one that would have undone the change to the default option. Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said public employees who choose the defined contribution plan often end up with tens of thousands of dollars less in their pensions.

“That could mean the difference between a secure retirement or outliving your savings and being forced to rely on the public services and possibly Medicaid,” Sobel said.

But Sen. Wilton Simpson, the Trilby Republican sponsoring the pension bill, said defaulting workers into the investment plan makes sense, because they are those less likely to be paying attention and more likely to change jobs before the vesting period for the traditional plan passes.

“This gives them a better opportunity to work four or five years in a career, and then change and take their assets with them,” Simpson said.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has made closing the defined benefit plan to new employees a top priority for the session. But that measure is seen as unlikely to pass the Senate.

Still, Senate President Don Gaetz said Wednesday that he thinks there’s still time to work out a deal — with Simpson’s bill as a possible template for a compromise.

“I think it’s possible that we could wind up with no bill, but I think it’s more likely that we’ll wind up with something that achieves the speaker’s goals — and I share those goals — but at the same time earns enough votes to pass the Senate,” said Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Weatherford said last week that Simpson’s bill is “better than the status quo.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee didn’t take up another measure (SB 458) that would overhaul some local pension plans for law enforcement and firefighters. But Ring, a sponsor of the measure, said the committee simply ran out of time and he didn’t believe that “foul play” was involved.

“I hope it comes up next week,” he said.

Via Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.