Op-Ed

Florida Retirement system remains under threat

TNS

In the blistering heat of a typical August day in Tallahassee, members of a little-known task force gathered to deliver their recommendations on one of the best run and most flush retirement systems in the nation.

The 15-member Task Force on Government Efficiency, a mix of private and public figures appointed by the governor, the House speaker and the Senate president to review and improve efficiencies in government operations, was created under the state Constitution almost a decade ago. It meets every fourth year.

In its last meeting, the group delivered a recommendation that has been in the crosshairs of the House leadership for years, namely the dismantling of the Florida Retirement System in its current form. In the eyes of House Republicans, the fourth-largest pension fund in the country is a leaking ship, poised for disaster and threatening to drag the state’s taxpayers down with it. The task force agreed, recommending that the pension fund be closed to new employees, moving instead to the riskier 401(k) style of investment plan.

Fortunately, the Senate disagreed. The state pension fund not only survived the Great Recession, but has been chugging along at a robust rate (currently 87 percent, far above the 80 percent considered healthy by financial experts). Independent studies have also concluded that closing the fund would result in millions of dollars in costs instead of the touted billions in savings.

Roughly 1,456 days have passed since the task force first made that questionable recommendation, ample time for reflection, introspection and running the numbers. And so it was stunning to learn that in the group’s first meeting since 2012 — well, here we go again. With the blessings of incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the Florida Retirement System is once again in the crosshairs.

For those safely removed from the Capitol’s shadow, the repetition of a move already debunked and discredited could be viewed as bumbling bureaucracy at its best. Unfortunately, it’s anything but.

Because the perennial drive to disembowel the gold standard for the state of Florida is not only fueled by politics, but the consequences of our actions in the voting booths.

Since its inception in 1973, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has grown to encompass approximately 25 percent of all state legislators nationwide. The collective, a mix of conservative lawmakers and private interests, has long targeted public employees, including teachers, law enforcement and first responders, along with the modest pensions the majority earn through their years of public service.

Florida is no exception. ALEC’s agenda is annually carried in legislation introduced in state capitals across the country, including Tallahassee. And House Republicans here have been willing participants in the latest manufactured crisis that our state pension fund is in jeopardy in order to justify slashing benefits.

Thankfully, the Senate has thus far been the voice of reason, composed of mostly moderate individuals reluctant to blindly swallow ALEC’s propaganda. But this balance could change.

This year, Florida voters have critical decisions to make, not only in who will govern the country, but who will govern their daily lives.

As the task force concluded its meeting in Tallahassee this week, in a courtroom nearby a judge readied to deliver a blow to opponents of Florida’s controversial corporate tax credit scholarship program. The opinion she rendered illustrates the dire consequences of legislative actions another public system is facing, and why elections matter.

“Appellants quarrel with the Legislature’s policy judgments regarding … funding of public schools,” wrote Judge Lori Rowe. “Appellants’ remedy is at the polls.”

State Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Democrat from Margate, is the chair of the Senate Committee on Governmental Oversight and Accountability. He is a member of the Task Force on Government Efficiency.

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