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Legality of State Workers’ 3% Retirement Tax Now Before Florida Supreme Court

| September 9, 2012

Florida used to care. (Simone Cento)

With hundreds of millions of dollars a year hinging on their decision, Florida Supreme Court justices Friday began deliberating about whether to uphold a 2011 law that requires government workers to chip in 3 percent of their pay to the state retirement system.

A Leon County circuit judge this year found that the contribution requirement violated the rights of state and local workers who had been hired before the law took effect on July 1, 2011.

But some justices appeared skeptical about one of the key underpinnings of the lower-court decision — that a 1974 law created contractual rights shielding such workers from the retirement-system changes.

Justice Charles Canady said government workers can lose their jobs and questioned why they also can’t be forced to pay into the pension system.

“I have a hard time understanding how when someone does not have a continuing right to employment, (how) they have a continuing right to a particular benefit of employment,” he said. “That strikes me as anomalous.”

Similarly, Justice Barbara Pariente questioned why the Legislature would “bind itself forever, no matter what the budget crisis” to a law that would only allow increased benefits and prevent benefit cuts or mandatory employee contributions.

But Justice James E.C. Perry appeared to agree with opponents of the 2011 law who contend that lawmakers could only require the contributions from workers hired on or after July 1, 2011.

“You can prospectively change it, but not to those employees that were there,” Perry said.

Despite fierce political opposition from unions and government workers, the Republican-dominated Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott pushed through the pension changes as they dealt with a $3.6 billion budget shortfall. The mandatory contributions apply to far more than state workers, as school districts, county governments and many cities also are part of the Florida Retirement System.

The Florida Education Association and other groups filed the lawsuit last summer, but that did not prevent the state from starting to collect the contributions — a fact that could force it to refund money if it ultimately loses the case. Ron Meyer, an FEA attorney who argued before the court Friday, said the state could face giving back roughly $900 million.

Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford struck down the pension law in March, and the state’s appeal was fast-tracked to the Supreme Court without having to be heard in the 1st District Court of Appeal.

As a sign of the stakes involved in the case, a crowd filled the Supreme Court chambers Friday to hear the arguments. The audience included representatives of state and local unions, the Florida Association of Counties and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which has been an outspoken supporter of the decision to require pension contributions.

Justices typically do not rule in such cases for months. Scott did not attend the hearing but released a statement saying the case was about maintaining a “responsible and sustainable” state budget.


“In 2011, the Legislature passed, and I signed, common-sense public pension reform, which requires public employees — like private-sector employees throughout Florida — to contribute to their retirement plans,” Scott said. “Prior to this reform, Florida was one of only three states that did not require public employees to contribute to their pensions.”

The Supreme Court arguments centered, in part, on the 1974 pension law and a 1981 court opinion that the state contends allowed it to require contributions from employees, regardless of when they were hired.

Raoul Cantero, a former Supreme Court justice who represented the state, said the 1981 opinion made clear the Legislature needs to have “flexibility to react to changing financial circumstances.” Responding to questions from justices, Cantero said the state could even eliminate the pension system, so long as it didn’t retroactively affect benefits that had been accrued before such a change took effect.

But Meyer said the 1974 law set up a system in which employees would not be required to contribute to their pensions. Meyer said Fulford, the circuit judge, found a “very clear contractual right” for workers hired before July 1, 2011.

“You can’t change the game in the middle of the game,” Meyer said.

Another issue in the case focuses on whether the law violated workers’ collective-bargaining rights, with Meyer arguing lawmakers passed the 2011 changes without allowing employees to negotiate them.

“The facial problem with this statute is, there is no room for any collective bargaining,” he said.

But Cantero said it would have been unworkable to negotiate the changes because workers in the retirement system are in hundreds of state and local bargaining units.

–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida

Ron Meyer speaks to the News Service of Florida:

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40 Responses for “Legality of State Workers’ 3% Retirement Tax Now Before Florida Supreme Court”

  1. tom dooley (still hangin' round) says:

    very easy to solve…since gov’t “employers” MUST pay into the state retirement fund; than gov’t “employer’s” should just opt out and go with another type of retirement fund where they “don’t” have to pay in ( i believe it’s 6% of the employees salary???) just the employees; that’s of course if the employees want a retirement fund??? saving “us” the taxpayer’s money since the local gov’t’s wouldn’t have to pay into it…like an ira or a 401 “K” where they could match an employees “contribution”; it’s not a “mandotory retirement” like the state retirement…just another “benefit”…just saying…

    • joyous says:

      It would not be a contract issue if it were only the employees after june 1, 2011. But when you sign a contract public employee or private it should be binding. I agree for the any new hirees but not contracts signed before june 1, 2011.

      • wr says:

        I’m in total agreement with the change impacting those individuals hired July 1, 2011 and later. Some government employees are preparing to retire after working 25 to 28 years it my opinion that this change is truly unfair to them. When applicants were interviewed for a state position several hiring mangers used both the insurance and retirement programs as incentives to entice potential new hires. That’s one of the main reason I find this action unfair.

    • Anonymous says:

      Thats why I work for the state for a definate state retirement i signed up for 15 years ago, otherwise i would still be in the private industry getting bailed out by the state workers and I have not had a cost of living raise in 7 years from legislature, everytime there is an issue a shortfall they cut my 35,000 salary which is probably the salary of about 80% of state workers.

    • Boo Boo says:

      well as a state worker i would only think you would respond this way as a private individual who this does not effect your paycheck, as a state worker of 15 years i signed up and exspect they not rob my retirement fund to pay paul, just like everytime there is a shortfall they look at my 35,000 yearly income because we hold the cards as the brunt always falls on us workers with the largest amount of us making under 50 grand a year, you know only 5% or so state workers that are in top brass make 100 grand or more a year, if this court does not over turn this mistake this jack ass of a governor and jackassiof a legislation done, then i bet there will be a lot of very upset state workers. i did not sign up for this and i exspect my money back in green backs just like they took from me.

  2. Samuel Smith says:

    If the increase were actually going into the pension it would be one thing; in this case, it’s being used to handle shortfalls elsewhere. I don’t see the logic in hitting state workers up for 3% of their salary just because Rick Scott’s private jet needs more fuel.

  3. Yellowstone says:

    Speaking from a x-Teacher’s point of view . . .

    After spending 6 years in college preparing myself for probably the lowest paying job the state of Florida had to offer, I accepted. BUT, knowing I’d have a part of the Summer to spend with my family, AND benifits would be generous AND I’d be assured a fully funded retirement.

    Well guess what? The pay remained the lowest, opportunities for advancement have dried up, the entire ‘system’ is either broken or on the way.

    Everyone: Ask yourself ‘why would anyone in their right mind want to spend all that time preparing for a crappy paying job and have to put up with a system that cannot keep it’s promises?’

    Beats me . . .

    Kids – read and learn. If today you can afford to stay in college, go on into medicine, pharmacueticals, or auto mechanics. Forget about an unforgiving job that used to have unlimited (and undefined) promises!

    • Anonymous says:

      Yellow: I am all for teachers but really?! – “the lowest paying job the state of Florida has to offer?! Apparently you have no idea what Floridians actually make nor for that matter what most Floridians (or most Americans) have for pensions. That would be none = pensions that is. Furthermore, I know many people “in their right mind”, including family members, who would love to gain employment as a teacher. Too bad they are not hiring in Florida and specifically in Flagler County.

  4. hey clueless says:

    401k’s are a proven failure. The majority of those people will never retire.

  5. bq says:

    Don’t expect too much from a stacked Supreme court. Remember this is the group that brought us George Bush. We all know how that turned out

  6. Outsider says:

    @ Samuel Smith: Rick Scott eliminated the publicly funded state flight department. He pays for the fuel that goes into the private jet he paid for. I’m surprised you get so many likes for your comment; there’s apparently plenty of ignorance to go around.

  7. Mary says:

    Ok all let me tell you this, I am one of those state employees this affects. I live and work in Citrus County, one of Floridas lowest paying counties. I make $7.69 an hour. I havent had a raise since I started. One of the reason I took my job was because of the benefits, medical and retirement. Now with the state taking 3% of my pay, I make less now than when I started. So now sit there and tell me thats fair? No raise in 5 years. Gov. Scott, reduced my pay. Do any of you know where the money is that he has taken from all these state workers that have paid into the system since July 2011? He is paying the lawyers, so he is fighting this with money from the retirement system. Now what happens if they are ordered to repay employees? at $7.69 an hour thats 615.20 every 2 weeks and at 3% that is $18.45 times 2 (twice a month) thats equals $442.80 for the whole year the state would owes me (if we win). Now that is with the lowest wage and that is only one person, now think of those who make more. Instead of complaining about the state workers or state funded workers, complaint about who it is that is making the wrong decisions. I would gladly pay into my retirement, but give me a raise to be able to do so. We here in Citrus County havent even seen a cost of living increase, but yet gas has been up, power company raises its rates and so on, but I have to support my family on less than what I nade before?

    • southerngirl says:

      You are 100% correct. This is my situation. Even if the state only put 97 % away for us let me have the option to opt out. The money the state is taking from me is my gas $. I hope they have to pay us back every single penny.

  8. Lonewolf says:

    No where in the real world do people get a retirement pension and not contribute a dime. Step into the real world teachers

    • truthbtold says:

      Generally, people will accept a low paying job if the benefits are good. That is why working for the state government was so attractive. It wasn’t the pay, but, the benefits. Now, that isn’t even worth it.

    • magooga says:

      The real world is taking a job for less than in the private sector. The trade off was benifits and the good feeling that we are doing a job to educate, keep safe or protect our communitiees. We are in our own way contributing to the betterment of our society. But we are being treated as if we are leeches instead. God watches you know.

    • Jennifer says:

      Well maybe nowhere in the world do service employess get the kind of treatement from the public that teachers and police officers do. You have no idea what these employees deal with. There used to be a time when these folks were respected for what they do for our children and the community. I don’t understand why there is such a move to beat teachers down. The salary is poor. This is the 6th year without a raise in the school system I’m in. Cost of living sure has gone up. People that take jobs in these fields accept the lower salary in exchange for the medical benefits and retirement package. I made a decision to stick it out for the last 8 years for my retirement. If I thought the governement could do something like this, I would have gone elsewhere to live and work. How do you make a contract year after year…..saying yes to work in exchange for the benefit package….only to have the government say basically that they are pulling rank and can do whatever they want to?

    • Anonymous says:

      then explain why before the employee’s contributed their 3 % that it was one of the strongest retirements in the nation ???? and the money WE contribute is not going into our retirement fund ???? private sector is just that private and 80 % of you people that say ‘ well my taxes go to pay for your retirement ‘ don’t even contribute !!! you just want to sound smart and say something dumb.

  9. Samuel Smith says:

    Alternately, pay teachers a living wage, then ask them to contribute.

  10. Dorothea says:

    @Lonewolf

    Retirement pensions were often used by private industry as part of benefit package to attract the best and brightest employees. After a set number of years, an employee became vested in the retirement system without contributing “a dime.” Full benefits were paid after say twenty or thirty years of employment and less if you weren’t fully vested for all the needed years.

    I’m not sure if there are similar packages anywhere in the public sector, but I’m also not so sure that there aren’t. I do know that in order to become vested in the Florida retirement system you had to invest 10 years of employment by retirement age, anything less than that and you got zero, loosing the package entirely. Whereas other states may require that employees pay a percentage of their salary toward their retirement package, they are almost always vested in a much shorter amount of time. Employees who paid into their retirement fund, also had the right to move from one state’s retirement system to another state’s retirement system, combining two or more retirement funds. Florida’s retirement system does not allow this.

    The rules vary from state to state, and job to job. More simply put, whatever the rules are, it’s wrong to change them in midstream.

    • Anonymous says:

      Remember cops and firefighters fall into this as well. If they all just quit because of this garbage then what would happen.

    • truthbtold says:

      I have not had a raise in 5 years, yet, my 3% of my pay is being deducted pre pay check for a pension that I was told that I did not have to pay into, all of my utilities bills have increased, medical insurance cost have skyrocketed gas prices and food prices are horrendous. Homeowners insurance is through the roof. I want my money back!!

  11. PC Aviator says:

    Think about just how much cops and firefighters do for the public–politics aside. For a starting salary of $33,500, cops in Flagler County pay an average of $100/pay check for health care for the family, 3% into the retirement, in addition to the federal withholding, social security, etc…that everyone pays. Now, take into consideration they have to put on a bullet proof vest, gun, taser, etc…and come to someone house to break up a drunken fight, stop a husband from beating his wife, catch the home invader/burglar/rapist…all while we sit in the warmth and comfort of our home, snuggled in our beds….on weekends, holidays, kids birthdays and first days of school. And they do all this—with the disgruntled citizens complaining and second guessing whether they were too mean, too abusive, too lazy, too uncaring–to save our sorry buts from the pits of society.

    What the heck is wrong with everyone. Cops go places and do things that no one else can handle. The average age of retirement for the high risk retiree in Florida (cops and firefighters) is 60. The average age of death for those same people is 62. Research shows this same population dies as a result of heart and lung related diseases/problems at a much higher rate than any other profession. So, lets slap/kick/hit the ones that are out there saving our sorry butts. How about a strong thank you. Keep your retirement because it is the least we can do. I don’t think the sex offender/robber/drunk driver is thanking them.

  12. cass says:

    Mary hit the nail on the head. I’ve worked for the state for 7 years. I have two college degrees and came to the work at the DEP after 10 years in horticulture. I became appalled at many environmental violations I saw and thought that I could make a difference. I feel I do make a difference and gladly accepted my 23,000+ a year salary as a park ranger. The first year I worked for the state we all recieved a “bonus” and no raise since. My utilities, gas etc have increased and the costs of taking care of my two boys has increased. Every year we tighten the belt one more notch and call ourselves lucky. Please understand that you need loyal employees in government because it takes time to understand the accountability, bureaurcracy, and regulations. Contributions to our pension…well if it is 3% this year – is it ok if they take 5% next year? or 7%? When we take lower wages then the private sector offers it is because the benifits are acceptable but if the benifits can change – what happens when we have invested most of our careers?

  13. Los says:

    I don’t care if the state never offers a retirement package to state employees again, just HONOR the package you gave to state employees up to this point. It is a sin to lure people into a system of benefits and then turn around and pull the rug from under them and then run to the courts to try to legalize theft. If the judges follow the LAW and not their personal BIAS then we all know that rick must give us our money.If the Legislature can change the rules in the middle of the game then let all state empolyees STRIKE. That’s right just walk out of every prison by throwing the keys on the floor. If the state do not have to honor their contact, then neither do we. How would all the judges feel if their retirement was taken from them after they retired, no they did not work for it , it was just given to them…..huh….huh….

  14. Anonymous says:

    Although I teach at one of Florida’s fine state colleges, I have never been a member of the FRS system, having chosen to fund my retirement privately; my wages have been and are continued to be garnished in compliance to this ruling anyway

    • hardgt says:

      Your wages are garnished and placed into an account for your retirement. The 3% state employees doesn’t go into their retirement account, but to help balance the budget. That’s not really a contribution, that’s a tax. Big difference!

  15. mike says:

    Our retirement fund is actually quite healthy in Florida. It is one of the wealthiest in the nation thank you very much. Rick Scott was told that he could not legally take money from the fund to put into his other projects which keep costing the state more and more money in the short and long run but wanted to get money from somewhere. As has been pointed out none of this money has gone to unemployment but to help balance the state budget. If it had gone to unemployment then it would be a very different issue. Furthermore these multitude of employees who put their lives into harms way have not reiceved a pay increase for several years and are esentually reciveing a pay cut and told to continue to do much more in his programs with far less staff, (many state troopers get 200+ miles to patrol as the only unit in the area. Just think about the extended response times next time you call the police because he cut their staffing.)

  16. Former Teacher says:

    As a former teacher in an urban public high school, I can honestly say that I was threatened and sexually harassed by students all the time and I did not have a bullet proof vest, gun or any other form of protection. When a student became violent in the classroom, I had to pray that security would get there quick enough and that didn’t usually happen. Several of my students were arrested for armed robbery and one even shot and killed a pizza delivery woman. I did all that I could to help the kids that I knew were troubled but, as teachers, we have our hands tied behind our backs and there is only so much we can do. When I was hired, I knew that, even though I had a college degree and would have to go through continuous training that I would never earn much more at the end of my career than I did at the beginning but at least I had good benefits and a good retirement. Now, there are really few reasons to go into teaching. What is everyone going to do when no one wants to be a teacher anymore?

  17. JohnyEms says:

    I’m disgusted by many of the comments on here. I chose this career because of the benefits and I spent the first two years of my career continuing to go to school to help me advance. I was offered at that time an “Investment” plan or a “Pension” plan. I understood that the down side of staying in the pension plan was that I would have to work 25 years or more for this decision to pay off. Now nearly 10 years later they want to change the rules on us. All of the proponents of Rick Scott’s cuts need to understand that I chose longevity, I chose to plant my roots and raise my family in Florida. My co-workers who chose the investment plan currently have THREE TIMES the cash value in their retirement over me because I made a decision to be a long term public servant, while many chose the flexibility and quicker earnings of the investment plan. If the Florida Supreme Court sides with Scott it will be a tremendous slap in the face.

  18. Steven Bidelman says:

    I work f or a school district also. I am not a teacher. I am well aware of the salaries of most every department in our district. Some are very skewed, but that’s because we have been caught up in a very corrupt administrative system for at least ten years. The teachers’ however, don’t get paid very well, considering everything they put up with. That’s across the board from K to 12. I have 25 years in the FRS, not all in one place, but a 25 year total. I considered the terms of my employment with FRS contractual in nature, benefits-wise. As many others have voiced, you don’t change horses in midstream, when have you have such an agreement. I have not received a step-pay raise in years, not an increase for 3 or 4. The level of our benefits changed, years ago starting with elimination of flex-spending $$ which was given (yes given) to use toward some of our health care costs.

    The next thing to occur was our self managed health insurance. It was taken over by a group, that I was told gets about 25k a month to manage now. Our levels of care went backward with this move.

    The administration privatized our entire custodial staff, with the exception of each sites Facility Manager.
    Nice job of cutting many employees throats from FRS who were close to vesting. In turn, this company over the course of the last two years, cuts the hours to their employees, levels of services dwindling.
    Not to mention, many of the loyal ones, had to leave to find better paying jobs again.

    2 years ago, our district implemented the “furlough day” program. Starting with only certain admin/management. This worked its way into most, if not all of the non-instructional staff now. My benefits took another dive, in addition to Rick Scotts unlawful treachery. All 250 day workers were forced to take 3 furlough days, all 230′s took 2 days, unpaid leave per year. Looks like the Instructional staff and other lesser day contracts were spared. But then again, many of them don’t get paid any better anyway.

    In the summer of 2012, prior to the 2012-2013 school year, a bunch of very good employees in varying positions were terminated. This was to help our own fiscal cliff, strange but the big corrupt admins didn’t suffer any of the cuts.

    So don’t think you’re alone on the other coast, we on the west feel this the same way.
    It sucks and somebody has to put a stop to it.. I would prefer it be mankind that does. But in the end, we all fall under an authority who is letting this happen as part of fulfillment of prophesy. I would like to spend the final years on this earth in a better way though, despite how the story will end eventually.

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