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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Florida balances its books on the backs of its employees

By C.T. Bowen, Tampa Times

It was a reasonable request from a well-respected public servant: How about a little something for the effort?
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe made the pitch on behalf of his 420 employees, but he could have been speaking for public servants across Florida. It's been six years since state workers received a cost of living raise. Teachers, deputies, firefighters and other local government workers in Pasco have gone five years without a salary bump.
"It bothers me that I'm not able to do anything more,'' McCabe told Pasco's legislative delegation Thursday afternoon. "It is time to recognize the hard work those people do.''
You'd think he'd have a sympathetic audience. Sitting on the stage in the Charles Rushe Middle School gymnasium was Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who just gave $52,000 worth of raises to seven staffers already earning more than $100,000 annually. And, earlier this year, Weatherford plugged extra money into the state budget to raise wages for the child protection investigators at the Pasco Sheriff's Office. The benevolence came after Weatherford's younger sister, a former investigator, complained about the lousy pay scale that gave more money to child protection workers in other counties.
So, surely, the speaker must understand issues of equitable pay and aligning compensation with work loads. He didn't show it.
You want better pay for state workers?
Honest. The was Weatherford's advice.
"When you go home at night and say your prayers, just make sure you pray the Supreme Court does the right thing on the pension ruling," he said for the benefit of McCabe and everyone else in the room seeking a state appropriation.
In Weatherford's pious view, "the right thing'' is a ruling in the state's favor on the challenge to the 2011 law that cut public employees pay 3 percent. The payroll deduction didn't enhance retirement benefits, but allowed the state to spend its pension contribution dollars elsewhere. Effectively, the Legislature balanced the state budget on the backs of its workers. (Full disclosure: My wife is a public school teacher.)
Public employee unions are challenging the legality of the law and if the Supreme Court finds the Legislature violated workers' rights, then lawmakers could find themselves giving back the money and beginning 2013 budget deliberations with an immediate $2 billion deficit. No money for raises or anybody's pet projects if that is the case.
But, this is skewed logic from Weatherford: If public employees really want a raise, they should be praying for a court ruling that lets the state hold onto the 3 percent already taken from them. I've got a funny feeling that the public employees with a sense of faith might be praying for just the opposite. Expecting employees to go six years without a raise and then self-finance their own salary increase (if the Legislature decides to include the money in next year's state budget) is just asinine.
Maybe they're seeking help from the Almighty because Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature haven't fared too well in Florida's courtrooms. In recent months, a circuit court judge in Leon County said the Legislature's maneuver to privatize health care in state prisons without an actual vote was unconstitutional; the state Supreme Court ruled Scott overstepped his authority when he grabbed rule-making authority from state agencies, and a federal judge said the new law punishing doctors for questioning patients about firearms infringed on First Amendment protections of free speech.
Meanwhile, a decision from a federal appeals court in Atlanta is pending on whether Florida can require welfare applicants to pass a drug test before they get assistance. A lower court already ruled that 2011 law violated the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment protection from suspicionless search.
Legislators should be embarrassed about these judicial rebukes of their continued failure to respect constitutional restraints. The speaker of the House shouldn't be advocating a state Supreme Court vindication for Tallahassee's abuse of power. More appropriately, Weatherford should be calling for a court decision that is just.
His constituents of faith, meanwhile, can offer up a prayer different than one calling for a budget fix. Maybe we should be asking for some wisdom in Tallahassee.

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