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TALLAHASSEE It was a tough legislative session for state employees.

There will be fewer of them in the fiscal year starting July 1. That date also marks a fifth fiscal year without general pay raises. Those that remain will find their gross pay 3 percent lighter as they start kicking in to the state pension pot.

"I think they've been treated shabbily," said Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, at the end of the 60-day session. "It's not only unfair, it's not smart. I predict that when this budget takes effect, there will be another economic downturn."

Organized workers in state agencies - like hundreds of thousands of teachers, county and municipal workers, police and firefighters statewide - opposed Gov. Rick Scott's election last year. They staged rallies against his policies on opening day of the session March 8, booed him in the Springtime Tallahassee parade April 2 and have another series of mass protests planned Tuesday in major Florida cities.

But Scott, a wealthy health care executive who made cutting the size and cost of government a centerpiece of his eight-month campaign, got a substantial start on what he wanted to do during his first session.

The number of authorized positions in the state budget fell from 126,765 to 122,236. It's estimated that 1,300 of the 4,529 eliminated positions are occupied by people who will lose their jobs.

There are 1,751 Department of Corrections jobs to be privatized in an 18-county region. If they don't get, or want, jobs with private companies that get contracts to run the institutions, a number of those officers will "bump" down the seniority ladder. That could mean a dismal chain reaction of job changes all over Florida.

The state employee share of health insurance costs will not go up next fiscal year, but the Legislature put the government on a path toward a four-tier coverage scale and a cap on how much the state will pay. The legislation directs the Department of Management Services to develop a four-tier health plan with escalating costs and better coverage limits.

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The change is set to end with hard caps on per-employee state costs, giving employees an incentive to shop for the cheaper coverage as some premium savings would go into their paychecks. It could also take thousands more out of state worker pockets to keep similar coverage to what they have now.

Scott sought a 5 percent employee contribution to the Florida Retirement System, but the Legislature only approved 3 percent. He didn't get to cut the special-risk pension credit for each year's service, but managed to raise the standard retirement age from 55 to 60, or the minimum service requirement from 25 years to 30, in the police, firefighter and corrections class.

DROP not dropped

For regular state employees, the minimum age for retirement without penalty will go from 62 to 65, or 30 to 33 years of service, for employees enrolled in FRS after July 1. And pensions will be calculated on the peak eight years' earnings, rather than the high five.

Scott wanted to close the Deferred Retirement Option Plan, which allows workers to retire and work five more years while their pensions are banked at 6.5 percent interest. Lawmakers kept DROP but lowered the interest rate to 1.3 percent for those joining after July 1.

"It's been very important to me is to make sure we have a retirement system that is fair to taxpayers and fair to those involved, making sure that they have a retirement plan that they can rely on," Scott said. "It's a plan that the taxpayers of the state can afford."

He said the new budget "meets my core principles" in modernizing the pension system and "shrinking the size of government."

The biggest win of the session for organized labor was the defeat of a bill that would have ended payroll deduction of union dues by government agencies. The House passed it but the bill died in the Senate, despite a compromise that would have allowed continued dues checkoff but prohibited any political use of the money.

Tax on workers?

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State Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, who represents thousands of state workers in offices, hospitals and prisons across her Panhandle district, said she talked to Scott about personnel issues throughout the session "and he was not difficult to talk with. He felt we need to treat employees fairly but to run our agencies efficiently."

Democrats, however, viewed the pension contribution as a 3 percent income tax on government workers. They argued that Scott was hitting employees up for $1.2 billion of the almost $4 billion legislators needed to head off a revenue shortfall.

But Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said it wasn't a tax because employees who work eight years - up from six for vesting in the pension plan - will get it all back when they retire.

"The question is, what are we supposed to do?" Gaetz said. "These are hard times and we could raise taxes on everybody, and that'll drive out jobs. This isn't a state workers income tax, it's just the end of Florida being the only state that does not ask employees to invest in their own retirement."

Some saw a bitter irony in Scott signing a Public Service Recognition Week proclamation for May 1-7, the same days when House-Senate budget negotiators approved the budget that cuts 4,529 jobs, privatizes prisons and tightens the pension rules.

"Public employees haven't been treated the way so many members speak about them, when they praise the hard work that they do," said Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee.

"This session has shown to be an assault on state employees and I don't think it's warranted. They are the engine of this state government."

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