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Gov unfazed by pension suit

Teachers' union sues state over new law

Jun. 20, 2011

A legal challenge by public workers to the new state law making them pay 3 percent toward their pensions is too iffy to cause concern right now, area government and school officials say.

There's nothing iffy about it, says the lead attorney in the class action lawsuit filed Monday by the Florida Education Association and other labor groups against Gov. Rick Scott and other state officials.

The lawsuit claims the new law violates the state constitution, including contractual and collective bargaining rights, Ronald G. Meyer, leader of a team of five lawyers for the plaintiffs, said Monday

The lawsuit represents 556,296 public workers, including teachers, custodians, health care and social service workers, police and others.

Andy Ford, Florida Education Association president, said the pension contribution hike is an income tax on Florida Retirement System members and a pay cut for hundreds of thousands of state, county and city employees.

Florida Education Association President Andy Ford argues that recently passed state pension reform is unconstitutional, which is why educators have sued Florida on behalf of all public employees in the state retirement system.

"This pay cut was used by legislative leadership to make up a budget shortfall on the backs of teachers, law enforcement officers, firefighters and other state workers," Ford said. "It's unfair and it breaks promises made to these employees when they chose to work to improve our state."

Scott issued a statement Monday saying he is "confident this law is good for the people of Florida and will stand up in court."

"Asking state employees to pay a small percentage into their pensions is common sense," Scott said. "Floridians who don't work in government are required to pay into their own retirement.

"This is about fairness for those who don't have government jobs."

State Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, also said he is disappointed the lawsuit was filed, but comfortable that the law will pass legal muster.

"I think it was the right thing to do in that there has grown over time an inequity between what the private sector contributes to their pensions and the fact that Florida public employees were not contributing anything to theirs," Aubuchon said.

Bob Rushlow is president of the Support Personnel Association of Lee County, which represents bus drivers, custodians and other support staff.

"The bottom line is when people came to work, the public employees were led to believe it was part of compensation package that the employer contribute to the FRS," Rushlow said, "and now they're changing the rules in the middle of the game."

Jamie Michael has been with the school district support personnel for 25 years and is a speech technician making $25,000 per year. Her husband lost his construction job and is unemployed.

"We're all making those big bucks," she said sarcastically.

She's happy about the lawsuit. The new law would take another $750 per year out of her pay, she said. She is planning to drop her telephone land line, cut back on food bills and look for other ways to save.

"Something has to give, especially when they put a new burden on you," she said.

Panicking over the lawsuit may be premature, but at stake are millions of dollars that government entities, school districts and some police and fire agencies are counting on to help plug gaping budget holes.

"It's too much of a 'what if' to speculate at this point," Pete Winton, assistant Lee County manager, said of the possible impact.

The county is expected to save $6.5 million.

Joseph Donzelli, spokesman for the Lee County School District, and John Torre, Collier County government spokesman, also said it is too early to tell.

The Lee school district would save $10.5 million with the new law and Collier government would save $5.4 million.

"The budget for next year is adopted in September, so perhaps we'll know more about the status of the suit by then," Torre said.

Collier schools anticipate saving $12.5 million.

"We'd have to make it up by either taking more funds from our reserves, which would put us in a critical budget situation for 2012-13," or find other ways, Joe Landon, schools spokesman, said in an email. "This would be a huge challenge which would have a detrimental effect on the district."

The next step is for Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford of Tallahassee to set a hearing on a motion for temporary injunction by the plaintiffs, asking that money collected after July 1 be set aside in an interest-bearing fund until the lawsuit is resolved, Meyer said.

The hearing may be held Wednesday, on June 27 or June 30, depending on the availability of the parties and the court's schedule, he said.

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