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Controversial Florida pension law overturned

11:36 PM, Mar 6, 2012   |    comments
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TAMPA, Fla. -- A judge has overturned a controversial state law that required public employees to contribute 3 percent of their salaries toward their pensions.

On Tuesday, Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford ruled the pension contribution broke a contract the state made with workers and is unconstitutional.

Judge Fulford ruled the state should immediately stop collecting the 3 percent contribution. Plus, Florida must repay workers all of the money, along with interest, collected since the new law took effect last July.

That will amount to about $1 billion.

Megan Allen says the decision is a victory. Allen is one of two Bay Area plaintiffs named in the class action lawsuit.

Allen was named Florida's Teacher of the Year for 2010 and says the law requiring public employees to contribute 3 percent of their salaries towards their pensions was an assault on her profession.

She says, "I feel like the state reneged on the promise they made to us when we decided to dedicate our lives to our students. When I first saw the email this afternoon, I did the happy dance, but at the same time I'm cautiously optimistic."

Representative Will Weatherford, (R) Wesley Chapel, feels differently. He voted for the state law and says, "The state of Florida is the only state up until last year that did not require their employees to contribute something. In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to do that...but when you have budget have the private sector....where everybody contributes."

Governor Rick Scott says this is an example of a judge wanting to "write the law" and he says the state law is constitutional. He says, "To think that we can't change a pension plan when we know it's underfunded...I want to make sure we can fix the plan so individuals can actually rely on it, because today you can't rely on that plan."

But that's not what State Senator Mike Fasano, (R) District 11,  told us about the plan. He voted against the state law. "Our pension plan here in the State of Florida -- the Florida retirement  system is one of the, in my opinion, most solvent pension funds in the country. I believe it's funded appropriately."

Allen adds, "It's very alluring to teachers and it's one of the things that we are promised when we become teachers. It's part of our contract. It's part of our compensation."

The governor says the state is going to appeal the decision.

The ruling comes as state lawmakers finalize their budget for next year and it is balanced by using that three percent contribution. The judge's ruling would put next year's budget $1 billion in the red.

House Speaker Dean Cannon says the ruling has no immediate impact on next year's budget and lawmakers will pass it on Friday.

Attorney Ron Meyer, who led the lawsuit on behalf of the Florida Education Association, calls it a momentous ruling that shows even the governor and Legislature have to follow contracts.

Meyer says, "The employees have a contractual right to their pensions and this court recognized that even if the governor and the Legislature choose not to. This is important. We are a society of laws. This court has said even the powerful have to follow the laws."

He adds, "This was a gamble that the governor and Legislature made last year. They gambled taxpayers' money that they could balance the budget on the backs of the hard-working public employees of the state. They lost that bet today and what happened was the rule of law and the contract that the Legislature created is going to be enforced."

Florida Education Association President Andy Ford says, "We wish that the governor and Legislature would listen to what the judge said, take it to heart, and just let's move forward. But if they choose to appeal, we're going all the way."

Ford says the teachers union is ready to take the suit all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.

Dave Heller & Tammie Fields, 10 News

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