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- 2013 - May - 1st -

Pension bill now dead after Senate vote

by Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida

Efforts to overhaul the pension plan for public employees are dead for the 2013 legislative session after one of the more ambitious efforts to deal with retirement was rejected Tuesday on the Senate floor, supporters say.

Senators voted 22-18 to defeat a compromise amendment on the measure, HB 7011, which would close the traditional pension plan to new employees and move them into a 401(k)-style, "defined contribution" system. With the amendment seen as a precursor to a vote on the full bill, Senate leaders pulled the measure from the floor.

Eight Republican senators —Charlie Dean of Inverness, Nancy Detert of Venice, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla of Miami, Greg Evers of Baker, Anitere Flores of Miami, Denise Grimsley of Sebring, Jack Latvala of Clearwater and John Legg of Lutz — joined all 14 Democrats in voting against the bill.

The move kills one of the top priorities of House Speaker Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel) who has pushed for the plan on the claim that it would save the state billions of dollars over the next few decades.

"We didn't quite get there," Weatherford said after the vote. "But that doesn't mean we can't still reform pensions, it just means we have to come back and try all over again."

Weatherford also indicated that a local pension overhaul backed by Sen. Jeremy Ring (D-Margate) was likely dead for the session as well.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican who sponsored the Senate version of Weatherford's bill, said there was no reason to bring his original proposal back up. That measure was less far-reaching than the House legislation.

"I was told by House leadership that they would not pass (the Senate bill), and so I don't want to waste Senate time debating a bill that's not going to pass the House," he said.

The vote came after more than an hour of often-emotional debate on the Senate floor. The compromise proposal would have delayed the closing of the traditional pension plan to Jan. 1, 2015 — a year later than the House bill — and would have led to a study of other plans that the state could offer.

For opponents, it was not enough. They said the pension plan was one of the few things that made Florida and its relatively low pay attractive to workers. And they said the state's firefighters and law enforcement officers deserved their benefits.

"I just do not understand why we want to experiment around, and we want to take these people who are protecting us every single day and put them in a system, just because it works in private business," Latvala said.

Supporters countered that the state's pension plan is not fully funded, that the rate at which people now change jobs means an investment plan makes more sense, and that change would actually protect those currently in the system by making it sustainable.

"At some point in the next 10 to 15 years, this topic is going to come back up, and we may not have the options we have today," Simpson said.

And while Simpson would not close the door on another run at pension legislation next year, he seemed to indicate that this year's idea is dead.

"I will say that there may be a discussion next year," he said, "but it will probably be different than the one we just had on the floor today."

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