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Mayor Lenny Curry was willing to spend all his political capital to get the Legislature to approve his proposed pension fix.
Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Mar. 29, 201612:00 PM EST

Inside the 'borderline miraculous' effort of getting Mayor Lenny Curry's pension plan through Tallahassee

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by: David Chapman

Hours after Gov. Rick Scott signed a much-heralded pension deal for Jacksonville, three of the main advocates found themselves around a table again.

This time, though, Mayor Lenny Curry, Sen. Rob Bradley and Rep. Travis Cummings weren’t talking strategy.

They were at Orsay in Avondale with their wives at a dinner planned weeks before. Bradley said it was genuinely a coincidence that it came after the Friday’s news.

Scott had signed their pension bill, an avenue for Jacksonville to help itself out of a $2.7 billion problem. The effort still has a way to go, including voters deciding whether they want to extend a half-cent sales tax another 30 years.

That will be decided in the months ahead. Getting to that point Friday wasn’t an easy task, though. Not with a Florida Legislature that takes a microscope to anything even mentioning taxes.

“It is a sensitive topic and it should be a sensitive topic,” said Bradley, the Fleming Island senator Curry recruited to help guide the bill through the Senate.

Cummings, Bradley’s Fleming Island counterpart in the House, looks back and calls the several months of effort and results “borderline miraculous” the way it played out.

The Tallahassee part of the equation began back in November and was capped off at that Avondale dining table Friday evening — a coincidental moment to celebrate before the next chapter unfolds.

Preparing for the starting line

Although Florida’s legislative session began in early January, the work began well before.

Senators and House members spent the fall months in committees and preparing bills, all while Curry and his team were planning how Tallahassee would need to set the table for Jacksonville to fix its pension problem.

Any effort would require sponsors, so Curry turned to two neighboring legislators who made inroads with pension solutions at the state level during the 2015 session.

Cummings remembers the initial call in late November from Curry’s office about the possible plan.

That was great, he thought. It wasn’t an official ask to sponsor a bill, but there was a problem if that was the goal. He was full. House members are allowed to file six bills each session and at that point, Cummings was committed.

“It wasn’t a cop-out,” he said. “It was the truth.”

The mayor’s office reached out to Bradley on the issue, too, but senators don’t have the same bill-filing restrictions.

Cummings said the official ask came from Curry himself in December, but still there was no room. Bradley called him, too, asking him to seriously consider it.

Shortly thereafter, a slot opened up when a telehealth bill Cummings was pursuing was taken up by someone else. Cummings was in on pension reform.

Curry said Friday the local legislators’ history on the issue and commitment was vital.

“If you’re going to sponsor a bill and be a part of it, you want to win,” he said with emphasis on “win.”

By that time, though, the filing deadline for bills was less than a month away. The legislators met with Curry’s staff over the Christmas holiday break to talk more details.

On Jan. 4, Curry publicly announced the half-cent sales tax plan.

However, by the time it was filed Jan. 8, there was a substantial change days before the session started.

Curry wanted a supermajority vote by council to enact the extension.

Bradley and Cummings wanted a different direction. They decided a voter referendum would be the best, both from a philosophical and strategic standpoint.

“We kicked around leaving it in,” said Cummings of the supermajority. Doing so might have meant it was dead on arrival in Tallahassee.

With the change, it wasn’t through. It was just “off to the races” as Cummings describes it.

Making the case

From there, the intensive lobbying effort was on from all sides.

Cummings said he was a little more fortunate — the bill was placed in just two committees, albeit two highly ranking groups.

Bradley had three to navigate.

Curry was a constant in Tallahassee, too. With the exception of one or two of the session’s nine weeks, he made the trip along Interstate 10 to lobby for the bill. That meant running from one morning meeting to another, followed by afternoon powwows selling the virtues of pension reform. He said his message was consistent.

“Just give us the tools to go back home and solve the problem,” he said.

Curry said three lobbying firms hired by the city spent much of their time on pension reform. Each firm was paid $50,000.

Cummings is one of 120 members in the House and spent whatever time he could talking to whomever he could.

The dining room, offices, the streets, “wherever I could find them,” he said with a laugh.

One of those meetings was with Rep. Matt Gaetz, chair of the Finance and Tax Committee, and a “tough” and “knowledgeable” member when it came to policy matters, said Cummings.

Gaetz’s main request was for Curry to testify before the committee, which the mayor did.

“That resonated with them,” Curry said of legislators hearing directly from him.

On the Senate side, Bradley educated others on the benefits of allowing Jacksonville to handle its own problem. If it couldn’t, he said, the state might have to intervene in the future.

“It hit home with my colleagues,” he said. “The financial crisis was real.”

Curry also attended and spoke at the Senate committee hearings when called, which Bradley said showed “someone who was willing to put it all on the line.”

Curry consistently told the committees he was willing to spend all of his political capital on the issue.

At the committee levels, there were only a few flare-ups of drama.

In the House Finance and Tax Committee, Rep. Jason Brodeur sought to swap the bill with another that would have added extra accountability.

“It kind of punched the city and the union stakeholders in the nose a little bit,” said Cummings.

Brodeur ended up pulling back the bill, but the message was clear that some tweaks were needed.

Those changes included codifying that unions — not the pension fund board — would handle collective bargaining, that employees would contribute 10 percent of their salaries, and clarifying the end date for the tax.

It ended up receiving overwhelming committee support — but that doesn’t necessarily mean floor votes go the same way.

Only a bit of nerves

The first floor vote came in the House on Feb. 24. JAX Chamber officials and council members made the trip by the busfull to show their support for the bill.

Yet, the build-up to that vote wasn’t as easy as it could have been.

After the committee stops, Cummings felt pretty good about the bill. As is often the case, legislators really look closer at bills scheduled for the floor.

Cummings said he started hearing rumblings about concerns from members.

He went back to Fleming Island the weekend of Feb. 20-21, but a lot of that time was spent on the phone talking about possible hostile amendments and other issues that might crop up. With a few technical amendments, though, the chatter and nervousness subsided.

The main point of contention during the vote came from Rep. John Tobia of Melbourne, who called it a new tax and was critical of some city expenditures.

Curry was with the Jacksonville contingent in the stands listening to Tobia, a legislator who had knocked on doors for Curry during his mayoral campaign.

“Of course you want to express clarity,” Curry said of his reaction to hearing Tobia, “but I’m patient.”

It was democracy in action. Besides, it was a favorable outcome.

“I’m just glad we won,” he said, laughing.

The Senate ended up taking the House version of the bill without any major surprises.

There tends to be more consensus among the 40 members and less drama, Bradley said, which he attributes to communication.

“You will not see things play out in a show,” he said. “… We rarely take each other by surprise.”

Bradley said even though he knew of the heavy lift passing the pension bill would take, he never became nervous once he saw the momentum building at the committee level.

Asked if he ever was nervous about the issue during session, Curry looks away momentarily and there’s a pause.

“No,” he said with a bit of defiance. “I don’t allow that.”

Any doubt that creeps in, he said, inhibits the ability to succeed.

After making it through both the House and Senate, the only place left to succeed was with Scott.

Capping a victory

Curry, Cummings and Bradley all said their lobbying and education efforts on the issue included Scott’s office.

And because of that constant communication and feedback from his office and the Department of Management Services, there wasn’t a reason to suspect the governor would veto the bill once it hit his desk more than two weeks ago.

Cummings said he didn’t bother Scott’s office about a decision and that not hearing any news was good news.

Curry said he and his team spent a considerable amount of time with the governor’s office on the issue, enough so that he knew of concerns and was able to react during the process.

“I had a good feeling early on,” said Curry.

The former head of the Republican party of Florida has a longstanding relationship with Scott and frequently said in recent weeks the two talked about the issue. But Curry wouldn’t go into detail about the conversations.

The signature and Curry’s news conference Friday served as an anticlimactic conclusion to one part of solving Jacksonville’s pension crisis.

Always one for a sports metaphor, Curry considers this halftime. The Legislature and governor have signed off. City Council, voters and collective bargaining are next.

“I am happy today,” Curry said Friday, “but we have a ways to go. Second place is losing.”

Bradley and Cummings both got the call from the governor’s office hours before Curry on Friday. They were told to keep it under wraps until the public announcement hit, which happened about 2 p.m.

Cummings laughs telling the story, saying he didn’t even call Curry with the news.

“I get worried about these things,” said Cummings. “I’m pretty careful about this stuff and he (Curry) would find out soon enough.”

The legislators couldn’t attend Curry’s quickly called news conference after Scott’s office sent word out about the signatures.

It wasn’t until at the dinner table later that night when the three saw each other.

With the news earlier in the day, it doubled as a cause for celebration of a first-half victory.

[email protected]

@writerchapman

(904) 356-2466

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