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In a Major Victory for State Workers, Judge Rules 3% Contribution Unconstitutional

| March 6, 2012

Ron Meyer, the high-power attorney for the Florida Education Association, can now smile. (© FlaglerLive)

In a major victory for 560,000 state workers, including, cops, firefighters, teachers and other school employees in local school districts, Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford this afternoon issued a ruling declaring unconstitutional a requirement that government employees in Florida contribute 3 percent of their earnings to a state retirement fund. The ruling is a defeat for legislative Republicans who enacted the measure last year as part of a plan to balance the budget. The law would have also eliminated cost of living adjustments beginning this year.

The ruling affects some $2 billion that the state used last year to close budget gaps–and that the state would have to reimburse employees. But that’s not the immediate likely outcome: nothing changes in payrolls this year. State employees will continue making the 3 percent contribution, because the case is being appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.

Ron Meyer, the attorney representing the Florida Education Association and other state and local government unions in the lawsuit, had argued that the Legislature illegally abrogated a 1974 law that eliminated employee contributions to the retirement system. That law had established state workers’ pension benefits as a contractual right. So every employee who was hired before the 3 percent law went into effect last July essentially saw the state break his or her contract. Asking employees to contribute some of their income “went to the very heart and structure of the pension plan,” Meyer had said before Fulford in October.

Fulford agreed. The Legislature, she wrote, committed “an unconstitutional impairment of plaintiff’s contract with the State of Florida, an unconstitutional taking of private property without full compensation, and an abridgement of the rights of public employees to collectively bargain over conditions of employment.”

Workers who have been hired since July 1 are not affected by this or subsequent rulings: they’ll have to pay the 3 percent contribution regardless, because they were not hired under the terms of the 1974 law–unless the Legislature changes that portion of the law.

So for now governments have a reprieve, though if the ruling is upheld it will have serious implications among local governments.

“It could be kind of a mess,” County Administrator Craig Coffey said. The 3 percent equates to between $800,000 and $1 million in the county’s payroll, he said (though so far it’s between $600,000 and $700,000). If those amounts had to be covered, there are enough reserves to do so, Coffey said.

Constitutional officers—the sheriff, the property appraiser, the tax collector and the Supervisor of Elections–are all affected by the ruling. So is the city of Bunnell,

Flagler Beach and Palm Coast are not participants in the state pension plan, so they’re not affected either way. Flagler Beach offers its workers a 401-k plan that contributes up to 6.5 percent of gross payroll into each employee’s account, along with a separate defined benefits pension for firefighters and cops, Bruce Campbell, the city manager, said.

For Bunnell, the 3 percent contribution equates to approximately $60,000 annually. “Financially, that is a good sum of money for a small town like Bunnell,” Cissy Bertha, Bunnell’s finance director, said hours before the ruling was handed down. “If Judge Fulford rules that the changes lawmakers made last July to state and local government employee pensions is considered unconstitutional, the City’s reserve will definitely feel the impact of that ruling.”

the state’s teachers celebrated the ruling.

“The judge’s ruling confirms that the Florida Constitution requires the state to live up to its promises, including those made to the public workers by the state itself,” FEA President Andy Ford said. “We are pleased by today’s decision. It once again will stop the Florida Legislature from overstepping its authority by ignoring the state’s constitution.” He added: “We urge the governor and leaders in the Legislature to embrace this decision and abide by the judge’s ruling. If they decide to prolong this case with an appeal, FEA is prepared to continue fighting for the rights of middle-class families who make our state a better place.”

Legislative Republicans reacted angrily to the ruling. “This ruling is a radical departure from past precedent,” Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, told the Sun-Sentinel. He said 46 other states require employees to contribute to their pensions and called Fulford an “activist judge who has no problem overstepping her authority and overruling the decisions of the state’s elected representatives.”

J.D. Alexander, the Senate budget chairman, was equally dismissive of the ruling in comments to the Miami Herald. “How would the legislature violate the law? How can the court direct appropriations, they can’t,” he said. “Neither can the executive branch, neither can a previous legislature. Only this legislature can direct constitutional appropriations. Period. End of story.”

Circuit Court Judge Jackie Fulford ruling on 3% retirement rule

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49 Responses for “In a Major Victory for State Workers, Judge Rules 3% Contribution Unconstitutional”

  1. MSFB says:

    While this does not effect me directly… FU Scott and the rest of you DS Republican Reps!

  2. Glow scott’s dominos begin to fall. All the bull shit legislation he pushed thru will go down in this fashion.
    All the while costing taxpayer’s more and more money.
    All these laws coming out of the repuglican controlled state government are settled law and the
    Florida taxpayer’s wallet is on the losing side.
    Thanks to all you lock-step loser voters who put all the dumb @ss repuglicans in Tallahassee.
    Instead of fiscal conservatism we have fools playing government and passing laws that
    any first year staffer should have told them was settled law.
    Again, thanks to all the dim bulbs who put scott and the rest of his crew in power.

  3. PJ says:

    Rick Scott just runs the state with out regard for the local municipality. One of the worst elected officials I’ve ever seen. I’m not proud of my party with him in office. If fact he makes me sick……………

  4. roco says:

    Another miscarriage of justice when unions are not expected to help fund their retirement.. If they do not want to contribute why not abolish the whole thing.. Why should tax payers pay for their retirements.. Nobody contributed to mine, Then again I was’nt a free loading union person..

    • FLATTRUTH says:

      Today we lost an officer! I have had guns pointed at me and I face the fact that each day may be the last time I come home to my daughter. Why do I do it? Probabily the same reason that I fought in our armed services……for life and liberty.

    • Nancy N. says:

      The problem here is not forcing the workers to contribute but how it was done. How would you like it if your boss signed a contract with you about what your wages and benefits would be and then a few years later said – oh yeah, that contract? I’m going to ignore it. In the private sector you’d have grounds to sue to hold them to the contract. That is what these state workers did. The state had a contract with the union that the state decided to change without the workers’ permission.

      This is a contract issue, quite simply. The state tried to break its contract with its workers. Should the workers have to contribute to their retirement? I absolutely believe they should. But it shouldn’t be done by giving the state the power to declare any contract that it signs not worth the paper its written on. Where would we be then?

    • saltlifeinfla says:

      They can abolish the whole thing. Just not for those employees that where already employed with the state program prior to 1 July 2011. It’s a breech of contract plain and simply.
      As far as your retire situation, that’s your problem if your employer didn’t contribute to it. You should have looked for a better deal. It’s also nice to see that you think police officers and teachers are free loaders.
      A better solution would be for the states and municipalities to stop wasting money and seek cuts elsewhere.

  5. palmcoaster says:

    Fascism didn’t and won’t survive Scott! This is Florida in America, no the Columbia HCA.

  6. Layla says:

    Why shouldn’t people contribute to their own retirement? Federal employees do, and I believe it is a lot more than 3%.

  7. Binkey says:

    The non contribution for retirement was set up as a perk for demanding jobs that paid relatively low wages.

  8. palmcoaster says:

    What a great pic of Attorney Meyer, his expression says it all! Great job so far Sir!

  9. state employee says:

    I am one of those free loading union people. I have not had a raise in 5 years. I have had my health insurance go up multiple times. I make bearly enough to support a family despite my decade of service to public safety. I work many hours and have missed countless family events. My wages are low with the understanding that I will have a pension (which is not enough to live on after retirement). I understand that this is a very sad state of affairs, however I dont see my 3% fixing anything. I do not want this to turn into some sort of political Red Blue discussion. I just want some of the readers out there to realize that these headlines effect a lot of people in the community. These are the people that you wait in line with at the grocery store, the people that sit next to you at a cafe, they are the people that you run into every single day without thinking twice. These are not just some goverment officals in a uniform or some amazing school teacher. Thanks for reading this comment and I hope you all have a safe day and spend at least one moment of your hectic day to give thanks for something that you would otherwise take for granted.

    • SouthFloridian says:

      First, I thank you for your service in public safety. If your wages are really as low as you say, I’m sorry to report that you may be in the minority, and your situation is not what is causing the “problem” here.
      Allow me to give you the other side of the story. Here in Palm Beach County, the average base salary of full-time fire-rescue employees is $90,245. The average base salary of sworn sheriff’s deputies is $72,175. (See: Nearly 1400 fire-rescue employees and 2650 sheriff’s office employees took home overtime pay in 2010, averaging more than $4000 each. The problem with pensions comes in here: “Some municipalities in South Florida still allow police officers and firefighters to retire after 25 years with pensions that pay 100 percent of their final salary – and annual cost-of-living increases.” (from Palm Beach Post editorial by Randy Schultz, Editor of the Editorial Page, posted Aug 26, 2011) And most municipalities allow overtime to be included in the “final salary” calculation, meaning pensions of over $100,000 per year! (Remember the figures I quoted above were AVERAGE BASE salaries; with 25 year’s experience, you are making well above “average”.)
      Now, try to find an employer who offers a pension of any kind in the private sector. And then try to stay with the same employer for 25 years (many employers lay off employees when they reach certain salary levels). Perhaps some union jobs have pensions, but unions represent a very small percentage of private sector employees, especially in Florida. And I have never heard of a private pension that pays 100% of the employee’s final salary. And very few private sector pensions have cost-of-living increases, because they are usually “annunities” that pay the same amount monthly for the rest of the retiree’s life.
      So the problem is, most private sector employees retire with no pensions, and those who do have pensions receive less than 1/2 what they were making as employees, and these amounts are “fixed” (with no cost-of-living increases), and yet we will be forced to pay high taxes for the rest of our lives to support paying over $100,000 per year (plus annual cost-of-living increases!) to each of these public service employees, for the rest of their lives (and probably their spouses’ lives as well). And if that isn’t “enough to live on after retirement” then I’m sorry; I would be “in heaven” with $100,000+ per year in retirement!
      This is not going to work; I’m sure I’ll need to leave Florida when I “retire”… While I might own my own home by then, I won’t be able to pay the taxes on it with my measly retirement “income” from the private sector….

      (If you think the numbers I quoted above are out of line, consider that “according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary of a firefighter in Florida in 2010, $50,010, was slightly less than that of police and sheriff’s patrol officers, $55,840”. Again, remember those are averages, not “final salary” with 25 year’s experience + overtime. Just to restate, my figures were for Palm Beach County, but Broward and Miami-Dade counties are similar. I would expect other large counties to be close.)

    • Layla says:

      State employee: This issue will not be solved if it becomes a Red Blue discussion. You don’t need to be a state employee to experience what you are going through.

      Have you ever thought about the fact that most people put money away for their own pension or don’t have one? We are all experiencing what you are experiencing, if that helps. (I feel your pain????)

      Should the government have to take responsibility for your benefits or should you take responsibility for your benefits like most of us do?

      Again, not an attack just something to think about. These are real problems we are all having. You are not alone. You are not a free loader. But the state cannot afford us all.

      What do we do?

      • Ed says:

        @Layla do you risk your life everyday when you go to work? Is there a chance you might not go home each night from work? I’m speaking for the public servants. These people are doing high risk jobs for very little pay. They deserve to have some perks. You maybe be experiencing similar issues, but your going home every night and these people may not. I know these men and women signed up for this, but they also believed they would be able to raise a family and live a modest life without struggling. Some of these people would actually qualify for food stamps on these salaries. This isn’t West Palm Beach. That’s a very rich community and comparing it to around here is apples and oranges. Also these public servants are unable to strike for any reason because they are essential to our community. The union is all they have, and their only source of playing field to fight for what’s right. How about paying these people a reasonable salary and I don’t think anyone would complaint about paying into a pension plan. This is simply common sense.

        • Layla says:

          Which public servants might not come home? High risk jobs? My husband was in the military for 25 years. We didn’t get any perks. I worked for the government and paid a portion of my income for my benefits.

          School teachers qualifying for food stamps? How is that? Pls. don’t play the rich v poor game with me.

          I simply asked the question.

          • Anonymous says:

            No perks for being in the military for 25 years? Health care maybe? Tax free income (if in combat zone) and retirement. You have a different contract as a federal employee. Besides the contract issue I worked for the state because I love helping people

            • Layla says:

              Anonymous, can’t wait for you to try government healthcare. When they run out of money at DoD, they don’t cover mine. I was a state and federal employee. I had to look for jobs where healthcare was covered and so I did. And I always paid into my own benefits.

  10. says:

    roco carry; a gun and work midnights, bar fights and domestic issues, working christmas new years and all the other holidays. i work 27 years shift work while my wife raised our two daughters, i ate in my patrol car, thanksgiving dinner and christmas. the ungrateful public will always be there.

  11. Anon says:

    Bravo, state employee and wsh!! I wish people who are ignorant would keep quiet. No one should judge until they walk a mile in our shoes. Thank you.

    PS State employee: I don’t think anyone is going to run into me at a cafe…I can’t afford it. =)

  12. John Smith says:

    Guess the TEA PARTY and Rick Scott just can’t change laws on a wim like they think they can. God can you imagine the tea party in charge of our life if one of them gets in the presidency.

  13. 88 says:

    How about working for 36,000 a year before overtime and holiday time. Work 12 hour shifts, holidays, birthdays, work injured, sick, disrespected daily, yelled at, told you’re no good, do nothings, lazy, and more. Have the public call in and complain about you when you’re just doing your job. Have supervisors side with false complaints before all the facts are in. When the complaint is found to be false you get “You should be happy to have a job”. Have your insurance costs raised numerous times and then have someone post on the internet how YOU DON’T DESERVE A PENSION… Then deal with daily reports of injured or murdered law enforcement officers. MY point is that I took the job knowing I would never be rich, I just wanted to support my family and hoped to have a decent retirement. That’s if I make it to retirement.

  14. farmer says:

    I wouldn’t call a 60% to 80 % 0f wages after 20 0r so yrs of employment bad retirement, which I think firemen get and I assume police get also. We are not ungrateful but why can,t you put the whole story of your horrible LIFE out so the public can see and decide.As to the danger if you check there is about 15 industries more dangerous.

    • Ed says:

      60% of nothing is nothing…..
      @farmer why don’t you list the industries, i’m curious. I would love to know the salaries of those other 15 industries too. We are not talking about just the danger, these people are PUBLIC SERVANTS. duh! They shouldn’t be treated like this. How do you serve the public and the community or do you just serve yourself?

  15. NortonSmitty says:

    Whatever you think of the 3% contribution, this ruling says Governor Skeletor can’t just change a signed contract to score political points with the Teabag buffoons.

  16. palmcoaster says:

    I pay taxes to get the services that our public employees get paid to provide for us. I do not pay taxes to be stolen via over priced contracts assignments graft, or to pay ten times the salary of a low tier employee to some worthless honcho up there, or the “retirement and health care paid to these elected officials” after all the years goofing in office. If these crooks want our workers 3% deduction, deduct it from what I pay them as well, have them pee for lab test and reduce their outrageous pensions and pays and end their free luxury government paid health care as well. Have them bite the dust! Our government employees keep up the fight, otherwise these coons will privatize as well our government services to bring in slaves to replace you all for greed, thru private corporation a-la Bain Capital style:

  17. Lin says:

    Considering the wages paid to school employees (read Flaglerlive’s salaries article and other published accounts) — to complain about a 3% pension contribution MEANING they already achieve 97% pension contributiions by the taxpayer — I don’t have applause for the FEA on their victory here — they need to live in the real world like the rest of us.

    The School Board needs to hold the line in contract negotiations on salaries if this decision is upheld.. The top salaries including benefits are way out of line with the private sector – and the money to pay for this deficiency is going to be borne by the taxpayers who are already suffering in Flagler county. If I had anything to say about the salaries I would perhaps increase those at the bottom & reduce those at the top. Where is it said that employees get raises forever no matter what they make now or whether their community can bear the expense. In private industry the jobs have salary levels and when you reach the top, that is it. We the citizens have inflation too, have families to support too and have retirement to finance too, WHERE IS THIS DEFICIENCY GOING TO COME FROM?

    My comments are solely on the school employees not other public employees.

    • dontbesoparanoid says:

      Your “real world” and another’s, may differ dramatically.

    • tampanative says:

      Lin apparently you do not understand. The contribution of many school districts for retirement is roughly 6% of that employees pay, the teachers were being forced, without going through the collective bargaining agreement clause of the Constitution to reduce the states cost by 3% and reducing the take home pay of state workers by 3%. Your numbers are way off. I’ll tell you what though, if the government will allow me to take the money I am paying into social security and put it into a different fund like a 401k I would be happy to do so. Because all these free loading old people are living off the backs of us young people who will never see a dime of our contributions. Stated in sarcasm!

    • Kip Durocher says:

      Funny – a close friend just started with Palm Beach fire rescue for just
      a little over 40k.
      He is a certified paramedic emt – I told him with one more year of school he
      could be an RN and start at 65k.
      He replied that he had always wanted to work for fire service.
      I will tell him to ask for his 90k and let them know about all your stats.

  18. MSFB says:

    This is not about 3% and who pays and who doesn’t pay. It’s about a contract made by the state of Florida with it’s public employees. The Turtle thought he could break this contract, thank goodness for some resemblance of justice. There was a time in this country when a man’s word was his bond, when you could buy a car on a handshake and your banker knew you by your first name, now we are no better than a third world nation, a nation of liars, cheats and thieves…

  19. Outsider says:

    Well, in MY real world it goes like this: Five hundred of my co-workers were put on indefinite furlough over a year ago. Fifteen percent of the management staff were walked to the front door. The remaining were stripped of their 401k matches for a year. The point is, in the real world if there’s not enough money coming in to pay for all the employees, some of them are let go. I can’t understand why government workers believe they should be immune to economic downturns.

    • Ed says:

      @outsider Uhhh immune? No raises for 5 years, high medical costs, over time cut. Does that sound like being immune? I’m all for walking the admin to the door, but truth is the local sheriff’s department has way more management then actually needed to be able to run properly. Lots of chiefs. I’m not holding my breath for those walks to the door. Also, in the matter of public safety you can’t just walk people to the door with crime on the rise. I mean you can’t compare what your saying to public servants. When the money runs out you can’t just park the patrol cars and shut the door. Are people this thick that they can’t see the difference? Public safety is a necessarily evil you can’t just lay people off when crime is on the rise, but i’m sure if these people have a crisis they will all call 911 and expect the deputies to solve all their problems in 15 minutes.

  20. Lin says:

    MFSB, when the law was passed in 1974 eliminating employee contributions to pension funds it was in lieu of raises — so employees can forego raises or both should be subject to negotiations IMO. Apparently the public unions want both raises and don’t want to contribute to their own pensions — I understand, that is their function, to get as much as they can for the union members. But within reason — we don’t have to give everything to them.

  21. Lin says:

    tampanative, us older folks (I can’t believe I’m calling myself older folks ;) ) had social security contributions TAKEN from us for all the years we worked. I also would have rather put the money into my own choice retirement plan. The money was squandered by our government. Who exactly is living off the backs of you young people? So tired of hearing that ” living off the backs of” and tired of hearing I don’t understand. Believe me, I do.

    • tampanative says:

      First of all I was speaking sarcastically, but it seemed to hit a nerve. Over a 30-35 year career, a retiring teacher in the State of Florida can expect to get only 40% of the average of their last 5 years of pay. Right now going at that rate many teachers would get about $20,000.00 a year from the pension. That sure is funding a great retirement package. Most teachers have extra taken out of their pay check in the form of 403b retirement funds to help cover the rest, because a pension will not cover everything. You stated that you are so tire of hearing “that living off the backs of” term yet you basically said the same thing when you mentioned the following, “and the money to pay for this deficiency is going to be borne by the taxpayers who are already suffering in Flagler county,” basically saying the same thing I did.

  22. roco says:

    wsh.. I finally stopped crying over your post.. When you were protecting all of us on holidays etc. you were getting triple time pay and additional days off even though in most cases it was voluntary. Life is full of choices and you chose to do what you did. Don’t bash me who worked two to three jobs at a time to make ends meet. I’ve been there and I have a problem with guys like you who live on their lorals..

  23. Kip Durocher says:

    I just want to clear up one point.
    scott’s nickname is “Glow” referencing his shiny dome.
    Glow scott

  24. Lin says:

    Sarcasm is defined as “a bitter jibe or taunt” and that is how I took it. Retirement package as you described is in addition to social security which is 50% funded by your employer and this would be more than most people get since teachers earn more than most people to begin with. By the way, not everyone gets this 50% funding (such as small businesses and independent contractors which pay all their own social security) Don’t see any connection with limiting the ability of taxpayers to pay for more than the community can afford with what you said.

  25. MSFB says:

    Lin, sorry but a contract is a contract and there is no negotiation clause. Contract should have start times and closing times. That’s the whole problem with our society, a contract is no longer a contract and people do not take personal responsibility for their actions and agreements.

  26. Smckendrick says:

    Ok here’s the skinny! If you were in the pension high risk class. There was approx 23% being contributed into your retirement! If you look at your checks the ammount that’s going in now is approx 17%. And this includes the 3% the we are putting in. So your precious governor who has been ranting about how short the frs pension system is, he is causing it to cover the additional 6% later in time! So your municipality only pays in the 17% and the state is supposed to make up the difference upon retirement. So now he can say it going to be underfunded because he cause it. If anyone out there is going to agree with the way the tea party does business, I sure wish you’d do a little research and follow up on your beloved officials. That can go for any party.
    I you did your research you would have known that floridas retirement system was ranked one of the absolutely best funded systems out there before mr Scott’s plan! He has now destabilized it and is causing Florida taxpayers to pay for rhe extra that your municipality was already covering!
    Great job!!!! Love to see homework being done party liners!!

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