TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – The House State Affairs Committee narrowly approved a bill Wednesday that could shift more public employees into a 401(k)-style retirement plan, setting up a clash with the Senate over pensions and death benefits for first responders.READ MORE: CBS4 Exclusive: Clever Thieves Using Signals From Key Fobs To Burglarize Vehicles
Hours later, the full Senate approved its version of the death-benefits legislation (SB 7012), with the sponsor challenging the House to drop demands for changes in what happens when state and county workers enter the Florida Retirement System.
The moves set up another episode in the longstanding battle between the two chambers over how to handle retirement benefits for public employees. The House has pushed for the state to encourage workers to join the 401(k)-style investment plan, rather than the traditional pension plan, arguing that the move would shore up the retirement system over the long term.
But a coalition of Senate Democrats and maverick Republicans has balked at prodding employees to join the investment plan. Unions oppose the move because of arguments that the investment plan is not as safe for retirees, many of whom earn less money during their state career than do their private-sector counterparts.
The House bill (PCB SAC 16-03), approved by the committee on a 10-8 vote, would send workers who don’t select a retirement plan after joining the state workforce to the investment plan. Employees currently “default” into the traditional pension plan.
It also would incorporate some of the death benefit changes the Senate is seeking, as well as a fix to unintended consequences of legislation passed several years ago meant to cut down on “double dipping” by members of the retirement system — another priority of some senators.
Two Republican House members, Shawn Harrison of Tampa and Ray Pilon of Sarasota, joined all six Democrats on the State Affairs Committee in opposing the plan because of the default issue.
Supporters said the idea was a modest attempt to change the system, noting that employees would still have the opportunity to join the traditional pension plan.
“I really do think on the grand spectrum of pension reform, this is a two or a three,” said Rep. Mike Bileca, R-Miami.READ MORE: Man's Remains Found In Shallow Grave Behind Miami Gardens Home
The proposal also acknowledges the change in career paths, with workers now more likely to change jobs before fully vesting in the state pension plan, supporters say.
But opponents blasted the legislation, saying it could lead to workers being dumped into a plan that is less secure and more sensitive to swings in the market. They said differences in things like contribution rates also make the investment plan inferior.
“It’s not an attractive plan,” said Matt Puckett, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association. “If it was, people would be going into it right now.”
Most of the roughly 1 million working and retired members of the system are in the traditional pension plan.
On the changes sought by the Senate, the House measure is less generous. It includes a provision that would allow the survivors of first responders who are members of the investment plan and are killed in the line of duty to get benefits similar to those provided by the traditional pension plan.
But it doesn’t double the death benefits to survivors of first responders, something the Senate plan would do.
The upper chamber unanimously approved its plan Wednesday afternoon, with the sponsor asking his colleagues to use the vote to send a message to the House, presumably about opposition to melding the bill with the default changes.
“I hope we can make a very strong showing on this bill as it goes over to our friends on the other side. … I don’t believe we should ever be negotiating on the bodies of our dead first responders,” said Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate.MORE NEWS: FDA Authorizes COVID-19 Booster Shots For Children Ages 5 To 11
The News Service of Florida’s Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.