Supreme Court upholds state’s reach into your paycheck
Thursday’s Florida Supreme Court ruling did more than dash the hopes of more than 620,000 public workers in the Florida Retirement System who wanted to see 3 percent of their pay returned. It also opened the doors for lawmakers to make more changes that help the state’s bottom line but cost the school teachers, law-enforcement officers, county employees and state workers. “We have different proposals on the table to deal with the state’s pension system,” said House Appropriations Chair Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland. “As for the state’s fiscal liability, as it pertains to future pension contributions, it clearly is a topic of discussion.” The high court’s 4-3 ruling is the final word on the 2011 law that mandates FRS participants contribute to their own retirement accounts, a change from the non-contributory system that had been in place since 1974. “The issues presented were with the state constitution and that’s where it ends,” said Ron Meyer, the Tallahassee attorney who represented the Florida Education Association in the court challenge. “There were no federal issues here -- it’s over.” The ruling preserves Gov. Rick Scott and Republican leadership in the Legislature’s policy to align more closely with private-sector practice and save the state more than $850 million a year. Meyer noted the ruling was close, with Justices Fred Lewis, James Perry and Peggy Quince dissenting. Lewis wrote that the contribution could cost FRS participants $12,446 to $329,684 over their career. “I think it’s important to note this decision could have gone either way with one vote,” Meyer said. Justice Jorge Labarga wrote the opinion for the majority. Chief Justice Ricky Polston and Justices Barbara Pariente, Charles Canady concurred. The Supreme Court’s ruling was a major win for Republicans tasked with piecing a budget together. Senate Appropriations Chair Joe Negron, R-Palm City, said if the Supreme Court ruled against the state, it would have had to pay the collected money back with interest. He said that total was well over $1 billion. A Twitter post by House Speaker Will Weatherford, R- Wesley Chapel, reflected the same sentiment. “This day just got $2 billion better,” Weatherford posted. Scott said the ruling would lower the tax liability for Florida families. Meyer said the multimillionaire Republican governor was out of touch. “I think it’s a great day for Florida families if starvation is a good thing,” Meyer said. “All these public employees can scarcely afford a 3-percent reduction in pay.”
Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, said the decision will mean that about $2.5 million will be taken out of the local economy to pay for the retirement contribution of the 3,100 employees in the county system.
Gov. Rick Scott, who pushed for the changes during his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, said the ruling "supports our efforts to lower the cost of living for Florida families." FEA President Andy Ford said Scott's words were "insensitive" and showed that the governor, a millionaire former health-care executive, didn't understand what it was like to live on a salary of less than $50,000 per year.
“Balancing the state budget on the backs of middle-class working families is the wrong approach for legislative leaders and the governor to take,” said Andy Ford, head of the Florida Education Association, a teachers’ union that led the challenge of the pension law. Politically, the move may have alienated thousands of government workers. But state leaders seemed to be banking on the fact that pensions like those offered to government workers are now rare in the private sector, where workers have seen retirement benefits eroding for more than two decades. State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, noted the discrepancy. “I think it’s fair,” Detert said. “They should be glad they even have a pension they can contribute to.” Workers’ advocates disputed the notion that the pension payments were designed to bolster the financial viability of the pension fund. Ron Meyer, a lawyer who represented the teachers’ union in the dispute, called the argument “bogus.” “It had nothing to do with funding the pension program,” he said. “It was all about making up the budget deficit on the backs of state workers.” In the longer term, Meyer said lawmakers could use the ruling to impose higher contribution rates on public workers. “If they came in and said we have to take 10 percent, 15 percent, I suppose constitutionally they would be empowered to do just that,” Meyer said. “Whether you’re going to see further punitive changes to public employee salaries and benefits, I leave to the future to hold. I don’t know.” The head of the state’s major teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association , said the ruling will hurt teachers, firefighters and other public workers and predicted the ruling could become part of the 2014 elections. “This is disappointing news for those who work to make Florida a better place,” Andy Ford said. “Balancing the state budget on the backs of middle-class working families is the wrong approach for legislative leaders and the governor to take. We’re disappointed that the state’s highest court said this approach was legal. I believe our arguments were correct, even if the justices didn’t agree. We still believe that a promise is a promise,” Ford said. “We are more determined than ever to change the face of the Florida Legislature. The next elections in 2014 can turn this decision around.”
Debra Wilhelm, president of the Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association union, which represents 12,000 public school teachers, blasted the ruling saying, “They had no right to just take that money from us.” Wilhelm said the pension fight had created political solidarity between teachers groups and such state employee groups as firefighters and police. “You watch and see what happens in two years,” Wilhelm said. “We’re all going to have to rally around and make some changes in Tallahassee.” (Andy Ford also quoted)
Speaking to reporters shortly after the ruling, Florida Education Association President Andy Ford said his group has no further recourse. “We believe that our arguments were correct and that the justices just didn’t understand what they were doing to a half a million Florida families,” Ford said.
Starting in 1975, public employee pensions were fully funded by the state. The FEA is still waging a legal battle against a law regarding performance pay for teachers.
The decision was a blow to teachers and other public employees who have been forced to live on less money than they did five years ago by the pension payment and a lack of offsetting pay raises, said Andrew Spar, president of the Volusia Teachers Organization. Public employees had paid nothing toward their retirement plans before the law took effect. "The only way this is going to change is to change the people (elected) in Tallahassee," Spar said. "That was made very clear by the Supreme Court." Employee representatives found the ruling unfair, in part, because the benefits package given to employees on their hiring was changed without being negotiated with unions. Florida's retirement system already had one of the strongest pension plans in the nation, and the money taken from employees meant state and local governments had to pay less. "It's a promise that was made, and they broke it," Spar said. "Just because it's final doesn't mean it's right."
Disheartened union members vowed to mobilize and vote out the legislators that allowed the pension to pass. “We’ve got to fight back,” said Debra Wilhelm, president of the Classroom Teachers Association in Palm Beach County. “It just seems like it’s one thing after another, how much can you take?” "It’s a bait and switch and it’s on the backs of our public employees," said Sharon Glickman, president of the Broward Teachers Union.
Karen McCann, president of the Alachua County Education Association, said she was disappointed, calling the mandatory contribution a tax on working people. "The legislation in the state of Florida balanced the budget on the backs of state workers," McCann said. The requirement also will make it harder to recruit teachers out of college to make their careers in Florida. "A lot of young teachers I talk to want to stay only for a few years," she said. Most University of Florida employees aren't affected by the ruling, said Paula Varnes Fussell, vice president for Human Resource Services at UF. UF provided a 3 percent pay increase to offset the mandatory pension contribution starting in March 2012. The roughly 1,700 faculty represented by the United Faculty of Florida union, which didn't agree to the proposal, will be affected, as previously reported in The Sun.
“They reached into the pockets of middle class workers around the state to balance the budget,” said Mark Pudlow, spokesperson for the Florida Education Association, “at the same time giving tax breaks to investors and corporations.” Republican leadership in the Legislature and the governor supported this decision, Pudlow said. There’s nothing more the Florida Education Association can do legally except, he said, to elect different lawmakers in 2014. “The biggest problem with this is that it’s really not a shared responsibility among everybody in Florida,” said Karen McCann, president of Alachua County Education Association. “It’s not a shared sacrifice.” McCann has worked as a state employee of Florida for 29 years and is disappointed to find the conditions under which she and others were hired have changed. The Florida Retirement System is “a big pot of money,” one of the most sound in the entire nation, she said. “How are we going to retain teachers in Florida? And how are we going to recruit?” she said. “We already have some of the lowest salaries in the entire nation.”
“We’re bitterly disappointed,” said Mark Castellano, president of the Teachers Association of Lee County. “Really what it does is it’s a call to arms for 2014 that we push to make a change in the Legislature and governor’s house.” The state’s highest court reversed a trial judge’s ruling that the law violated the collective bargaining contract and property rights of about 600,000 of the state’s public employees, by a 4-3 decision. “I was stunned by that 4-3 decision,” said Jonathan Tuttle, executive director of Collier County Education Association. “A promise was made to all public servants -- you come work for this salary, which is not a great salary… and we cover your retirement.” Castellano said the pension fund was never in jeopardy of running out of funding. The public employees’ contributions, though, were not used to strengthen the Florida Retirement System, one of the nation’s strongest pension plans. Instead, they reduced contributions made by state and local government employers. Scott argued it was unfair Florida’s public employees didn’t contribute because workers in most other states and the private sector are required to help pay for their pensions if they have that benefit. “We’re not the private sector,” Castellano said. “The state made an agreement and part of that agreement was that they would fund our retirement. We know we’ll never get rich teaching, but there are certain things we get in exchange. Nobody can live off their FRS pension, even in the best of times, it’s not a livable wage, not a livable pension.” Castellano said the average pension payment for retirees is about $25,000 a year.
Florida lucky that pension case wasn’t decided on fairness
Florida Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga convincingly explains, in the majority opinion released Thursday, why it was constitutional in 2011 for the Florida Legislature to make teachers and other state workers contribute to their pension accounts. Before Justice Labarga gets to the basics, however, he notes that “our ruling today expresses no view as to the wisdom, policy, or motives behind the challenged statutory provisions.” In her concurring opinion, Justice Barbara Pariente is more pithy. “Although I understand the frustration of state employees, who have in effect taken a 3 percent pay-cut in addition to years without cost-of-living adjustments, this case is not about the wisdom or fairness of the Legislature’s decision.” As we have said, if the case had been about fairness, state workers protesting the changed pension rules would have won unanimously. The Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott cared more about sticking it to teachers unions than shoring up the Florida Retirement System. Legislators and the counties, cities and school districts that benefited from the new law, which reduced employers’ mandatory contributions to the pension funds, in most cases used their windfall to plug unrelated budget holes. As we also have noted, the teachers and state workers might not have liked the consequences if the Florida Supreme Court had upheld the unions’ lower-court success. The plaintiffs wanted the state to refund the mandatory pension contributions plus interest, a total that would have exceeded $1.5 billion. The consequences, including layoffs, would have been ongoing. For example, the Palm Beach County School District would have had to find an extra $30 million a year to make up the payments that the new law shifted to employees. Thursday’s 4-3 ruling means the state and school districts came within one vote of that financial chaos.
A few points about the instability of value-added estimates
One of the most frequent criticisms of value-added and other growth models is that they are “unstable” (or, more accurately, modestly stable). For instance, a teacher who is rated highly in one year might very well score toward the middle of the distribution – or even lower – in the next year (see here, here and here, or this accessible review). Some of this year-to-year variation is “real.” A teacher might get better over the course of a year, or might have a personal problem that impedes their job performance. In addition, there could be changes in educational circumstances that are not captured by the models – e.g., a change in school leadership, new instructional policies, etc. However, a great deal of the recorded variation is actually due to sampling error, or idiosyncrasies in student testing performance. In other words, there is a lot of “purely statistical” imprecision in any given year, and so the scores don’t always “match up” so well between years. As a result, value-added critics, including many teachers, argue that it’s not only unfair to use such error-prone measures for any decisions, but that it’s also bad policy, since we might reward or punish teachers based on estimates that could be completely different the next year. The concerns underlying these arguments are well-founded (and, often, casually dismissed by supporters and policymakers). At the same time, however, there are a few points about the stability of value-added (or lack thereof) that are frequently ignored or downplayed in our public discourse. All of them are pretty basic and have been noted many times elsewhere, but it might be useful to discuss them very briefly. Three in particular stand out.
Pasco schools not equipped for new teacher evaluation system (FEA mentioned)
St. Lucie teachers, district officials optimistic about mediation session (Vicki Rodriguez quoted)
Santa Rosa math instructor questions raises for teachers (David Godwin quoted)
Franklin school employee departures accelerate (Cathy Wood quoted)
Back up Hillsborough special-ed reforms with money
Security on the table at Escambia County schools
Price tag for Marion school security upgrades: $11.3 million
Atheists, others want equal access to Orange schools after Bible distribution
Clay School Board votes to deny motion for proposed charter school
Florida report card on school breakfast: Progress with room for improvement
Refusal to administer standardized testing spreads in Washington
New York City, teachers union trade harsh words over evaluation plan impasse
BOG chair decries funding decline
There is an undeniable tension between what Gov. Rick Scott wants for Florida’s public universities and how much lawmakers, including Scott, are willing to pay for. As Scott prepares to submit a budget for his third legislative session, members of the Board of Governors and higher education leaders across the state will be watching with keen interest. The governor has said repeatedly that he wants Florida to have the best university system in the nation. He has also said he wants it to be the most affordable, and he is adamantly opposed to raising tuition. Are those two goals compatible? Remarks from BOG Chairman Dean Colson during his annual State of the System address Thursday at University of Florida indicated they are not. Reflecting on six straight years of reduced state support, Colson made it clear that new priorities are in order. “This decline in funding is not sustainable,” he said. “We are obviously doing more with less. We are more efficient than ever. But it can only go so far.” Cream-of-the-crop faculty are required to make Florida’s top universities among the best in the nation, Colson said. Membership in national academies is critical, he added, before using a sobering example to show how far Florida is from competing with the top public institution in the country, University of California, Berkeley.
It has 226 national academy members among its faculty, compared to just 38 at all 12 Florida public universities combined. “If you want our system to serve as an economic engine for the state, we must have the resources to recruit the best and the brightest. Simply being ‘good’ is not good enough,” Colson said.
Scott spoke to UF presidential candidate before asking Machen to stay
Florida TaxWatch wants to drop DROP
Scott calls for more early voting days, sites
Researchers find Florida's election law disproportionately hurt minority voters
Report: Collier elections officials rejected blacks' absentee ballots at higher rate
Judge refuses to dismiss Florida redistricting case
Judge dismisses North Florida voting fraud charges
Pair say new medical system could save $16 billion annually
King's dream remains elusive in Florida
Senate starts over in quest to build a transparency website
Chamber legislative priorities draw mixed reaction from environmentalists
Republicans may offer short-term extension of borrowing limit
Difficult choices on debt if the U.S. hits the ceiling
The dwindling deficit
|Take Back Our Schools,
Our Florida, Our State
|Click here to find out how you can help|