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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Teachers union sues Florida over new pension law

From the Sun

TALLAHASSEE — The 140,000-member statewide teachers union sued Gov. Rick Scott and other state officials Monday to block a new law that requires state employees to begin contributing to their retirement plans.

The challenge, filed in Leon County circuit court, asserts that the law's required 3 percent contribution to the state's retirement fund amounts to a breach of contract with public employees, who accepted their positions with the promise of certain benefits. Those benefits included a pension plan that did not require contributions.

Esessentially an income tax levied only on workers belonging to the Florida Retirement System. It's unfair — and it breaks promises made to these employees when they chose to work to improve our state," said Florida Education Association president Andy Ford.

Florida Legislature The initial suit listed 11 public-employee plaintiffs, including teachers, health-care professionals and laborers representing other unions. Two other unions — the Florida Police Benevolent Association and the SEIU Florida Public Services Union, whose members work for the cities of Orlando and West Palm Beach and the Palm Beach County School Board — also asked to join.

Florida lawmakers spent most of the 60-day legislative session on the pension bill. The state's retirement system is in relatively good financial shape, but lawmakers acknowledged they needed the pension contributions — more than $1 billion from 572,000 public employees — to help offset a revenue shortfall of nearly $4 billion.

Scott had made pension reform one of his campaign issues and spent much of the session advocating for a 5 percent rate, arguing that Florida was the only state that did not require employees to contribute to their pensions. Amid heavy lobbying from law enforcement, teachers and other public employees, lawmakers settled on 3 percent.

Scott, who was in Washington, D.C., on Monday, said that asking employees to contribute to their retirement "makes all the sense in the world," noting that private-sector retirement benefits are far less generous and require employees to contribute.

"It's the right thing to do for our state," he said. "It's within the rights of the Legislature to do it. It's the right thing for taxpayers. It's the right thing for those employees, frankly. People should participate in their retirement plan."

The FEA suit is one of several lawsuits challenging laws passed by the 2011 legislative session.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed two lawsuits, one to stop drug testing of public employees and the other over new laws regulating elections. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Florida chapters of three physicians' groups have also sued to block a new law that restricts a doctor's ability to ask patients about guns in their homes.

Ford of the FEA, in a conference call with reporters, said Monday's lawsuit would be the first in a "series of judicial challenges." The union will likely soon sue to block a teacher merit-pay law that was a top priority for GOP lawmakers. Instead of basing pay and hiring decisions on seniority, the law creates a new evaluation system for teachers that focuses more on student test scores.

The FEA is also raising legal concerns about a proposed constitutional amendment that would eliminate language in the state Constitution that bars state funding of religious institutions, including parochial schools.

William E. Gibson of the Washington Bureau and Leslie Postal of the Sentinel staff contributed. or 850-224-6214. Follow her on Twitter @khaughney

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