By Michael Van Sickler
Upon becoming Florida House Speaker last year, Will Weatherford said pension reform was going to be one of his top priorities.
But with a little more than a week left in session, Weatherford has for the first time acknowledged the clock is running down on his legislation.
“Nobody ever bats 1.000,,” Weatherford told reporters Tuesday. “No one ever expects to get every single thing they asked for at the beginning of session.”
If there is a path to getting HB 7011 even heard in the Florida Senate, it’s not an obvious one. From the beginning, Weatherford has championed the bill, which was sponsored by Rep.Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford.
It would require new state, school and county employees hired after Jan. 1, 2014 to enroll in 401(k) style retirement plans and prohibit them from enrolling in the state’s pension system. The only legislation that the Senate has picked up that resembles HB 7011 is SB 1392, sponsored by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.
Though the two are friends and business associates (Simpson employs Weatherford as a consultant for his environmental business) the two bills are quite different. Simpson’s bill is more of a half measure when compared to Brodeur’s bill in that it only encourages workers to enroll in 401(k)-style retirement systems. If they want to enroll in the pension system, they would be allowed.
Union groups object to both bills, (though two, the Florida Police Benevolent Association and Florida Professional Firefighters support 1392) saying they would deplete the pension system, partly because it curtails its ability to make good investments. Brodeur’s bill would do it more quickly, Simpson’s bill would do it over time.
Though a half measure is better than nothing, Weatherford has said, he still is pushing for a vote on the Senate floor for HB 7011.
“If our pension bill is given a chance to be heard on the senate floor, I think it has a chance to get 21 votes,” Weatherford said. “It’s Week Eight. They’ve got some time. We sent it to them ...and they have until the middle of next week so there’s a lot of time on the clock.”
But senators seem hesitant to even take up Simpson’s bill.
“Either bill would require a lot of change,” said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. “Those kinds of issues always do require change. My concern is that both the Speaker and Sen. Simpson’s bills would be a fundamental change in the system. It would be a lot to get done. They’re both good bills, but it doesn’t mean it has to get done this year. It’s a difficult issue to take on the last week. It’s a complicated issue.”
Simpson’s bill was supposed to be discussed on the Senate floor today, but it was delayed -- again. That’s not a good sign. So why would senators take up a bill, HB 7011, that would go even further than Simpson’s bill?
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he helped craft parts of Simpson’s bill, but wouldn’t say which ones. Latvala, who has clashed with Weatherford on ethics reform, said he doesn’t think HB 7011 has a chance.
“In my opinion, that can’t pass the Senate,” Latvala said.
So is Weatherford trying to get an up-and-down vote on HB 7011 in the Senate so he can count noses?
After all, he can still use the budget, which isn’t due until Tuesday, as leverage. If members want certain projects, Weatherford could use the budget as a carrot -- or stick.
But Weatherford said he doesn’t play that way. “You all know me well enough, the senators know me well enough, we’re going to plead the case based on policy,” Weatherford told reporters Tuesday. “My hope is that if there are members who want to vote no that they give me and my members, the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Jason Brodeur, the opportunity to make the case as to why we think it’s good policy. But no, we will sell the policy and that will be it.”
It could be up to Simpson, who could introduce a strike-all amendment and replace the Brodeur bill for his.
But he has said that's not his call to make.
"That's above my paygrade," he said.
But Senate President Don Gaetz said it's totally up to Simpson as to how he wants this issue to be decided.
"I wouldn't ask another senator to amend his bill," Gaetz said. "It would be up to the senator."
Asked Wednesday what his plans were, Simpson said: "Stay tuned."
Copyright © 2013, Tampa Bay Times
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