AFT's Florida Affiliate Sues Over Changes to Pension Plan

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The Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit in Circuit Court in Tallahassee June 20 seeking to stop the 3 percent pay cut imposed on teachers, school employees and other workers by the Florida Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott.

The lawsuit asserts that legislation requiring that 3 percent of the salaries of active members of the Florida Retirement System (FRS) be taken from such employees to serve as "contributions" toward their retirement benefits is unconstitutional. The lawsuit further contends that actions by the Legislature to reduce the cost-of-living benefits of those employees also were unconstitutional.

"This pay cut was used by legislative leadership to make up a budget shortfall on the backs of teachers, law-enforcement officers, firefighters and other state workers," says FEA president Andy Ford, who is an AFT vice president. "It is essentially 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.

"While the state of Florida may make the policy decision to ask future employees to contribute to their retirement, it may not unilaterally change the covenant it made with current employees," Ford says.

The lawsuit alleges that Florida law expressly provides that the Florida Retirement System is one in which employees do not have to contribute part of their salaries and describes that as a contractual obligation of the state. The FRS collects retirement money for more that 900 state and local government employers in the state, covering 655,000 active employee members and providing benefits to 219,000 retired members. It has been a noncontributory plan since 1974.

The lawsuit names Gov. Rick Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Attorney General Pam Bondi and John Miles, secretary of the Department of Management Services, as defendants in the lawsuit. Atwater, Bondi and Scott are the members of the State Board of Administration that is responsible for overseeing the Florida Retirement System Trust Fund, and Miles runs the agency that oversees the fund.

FEA's attorney is requesting that the court segregate the money it collects from the 3 percent pay cuts and place it in an interest-bearing account until the lawsuit is settled. Teachers, school employees and other public workers would receive their money back with interest if the court agrees with the claims.

Ford says he is fully aware that FEA risks incurring the wrath of Senate President Mike Haridopolos, House Speaker Dean Cannon and other top state legislative leaders, and that retribution toward the union and its members could be in the offing.

In this past legislative session, "FEA was fully in the crosshairs of legislative leaders with S.B. 736, which will upend the teaching profession; massive budget cuts to public education; and a spate of bills designed to put our union, and other public-sector unions, out of business," Ford says. "But the importance of doing the right thing and protecting the constitutional rights of our members trump the fears of legislative payback." [FEA press release]

June 20, 2011