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House Speaker Will Weatherford

Weatherford admits his long-sought pension bill is likely dead

By Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida

The latest drive to overhaul the retirement system for public employees collapsed on the Senate floor Wednesday, all but ending House Speaker Will Weatherford’s drive to achieve one of his top priorities.

A procedural move scuttled attempts to bring the House version of the bill (HB 7181) before the Senate. Despite attempts by Senate supporters to craft an amendment working around the issues, the measure didn’t come up in an afternoon session, and the sponsor said afterward that the bill is dead.

“At this point, the best thing we can probably do is — because of the opposing forces — is to allow a Detroit-type moment to happen and then fix it from there,” said Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, in a reference to dramatic changes in Detroit’s pension plans after the city went bankrupt. “ ... When we are willing to look past the facts, there’s really not a whole lot we can do.”

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, did not completely give up on the legislation, but he admitted that prospects for approving the measure were bleak. The 60-day legislative session ends Friday.

“We’ve always known that it wasn’t going to be an easy lift. ... I would say nothing’s ever dead until Day 60, but there’s no question that the bill is probably in some pretty big trouble,” he

said.

The apparent death of the legislation deprives Weatherford of something he has sought his entire term as speaker.

Weatherford has pushed various versions of the pension overhaul over the last two years, outraging public-employee unions and sparking intra-party fights in the Senate GOP caucus. In 2013, many of the same Republicans who voted against the bill Wednesday opposed a proposal that would have closed the traditional pension plan to new workers and forced them into a 401(k)-style investment plan.

The more modest bill defeated Wednesday would have put workers who don’t choose between the pension plan and the investment plan into the investment plan; those employees are usually sent into the traditional pension by default. It also would have increased the vesting period from eight years to 10.

State officials estimated the overhaul would dramatically increase the number of workers in the investment plan — boosting its share of employees from about a quarter of the plan’s members today to half of all workers in the Florida Retirement System, or perhaps more.

When the Senate tried to take up the House version of the bill — which blends the Florida Retirement System changes with a relatively non-controversial revamp of local police and firefighter pensions — Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, made a motion that would have required a two-thirds vote to hear the House legislation.

That motion passed, 21-15, indicating that there was not a two-thirds majority to support bringing the bill up. Leaving the chamber shortly after the vote, Latvala told reporters he didn’t want to talk about the bill.

“We just need to respect the process,” he said. “We have rules. We need to respect them. You need to match up the bills before you can take up the House bill. That’s just the way it is. That’s all I got to say about it.”

Supporters worked over the Senate’s lunch break to try to cobble together an amendment to salvage the measure. But the bill wasn’t mentioned on the floor after Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, told the chamber he would meet with Latvala and Simpson to decide how to proceed.

In the early debate, Simpson tried to convince his colleagues that the gap between the cost of retiree benefits and the plan’s ability to pay for them could grow in future years and endanger the Legislature’s other priorities.

“At some point, it’s going to get so big that the state of Florida’s credit is going to get downgraded,” Simpson said.

If the state’s rating were to drop by one grade, Simpson said, it could cost taxpayers up to $300 million a year.

Simpson also stressed that existing workers wouldn’t see any change in their retirement plans and that new workers would still have the option to choose a traditional pension if they wanted to.

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