Objections to pension changes take sponsor by surprise

The Current reports:

One of the architects of sweeping government pension legislation passed last session said he was taken by surprise on Tuesday, when a host of public employees opposed a measure that would walk back one of its most contentious provisions.

Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, worked with labor groups such as the Police Benevolent Association to develop HB 525, which would lower the retirement age for “special risk” employees such as police and firefighters to 55, or 25 years of service. Among last year’s pension changes raised their retirement age to 60.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has proposed a similar set of changes in the Senate, which he amended onto SB 2040 last week. He said the proposed changes are intended to help the class of workers whose jobs are the most physically demanding.

However, a meeting of the House Government Operations Subcommittee Tuesday, firefighters and some groups representing police officers and retired government employees objected to other provisions in the new bill that are intended to neutralize the age rollback’s effect on the state’s pension fund.

The bill would automatically enroll new employees in the state’s 401(k)-style retirement plan unless they specifically choose the defined-benefit pension plan, the opposite of the state’s current practice. It would also increase from eight to 11 the minimum number of years new hires who choose the pension plan must work before they become eligible for retirement benefits.

Critics of the plan said they were concerned the longer vesting period could make new employees less likely to recoup pension benefits if they are laid off. The measure ultimately passed 7-6.

Linda Edson of the Florida Retired Educators Association said she was concerned that automatically enrolling new hires onto the investment plan will affect the financial health of the pension plan.

“The health of this plan depends on enrollment of new employees,” she said.

Workman said he was “shocked” at the negative response to a measure that was intended to undo one of the most contentious changes made last session. “There was no surprise in this bill for anybody that worked with me,” he said.

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