Friday, January 18, 2013

Our digest of, and commentary on today's Florida political news and punditry follows.

Chiles Appointee Key Vote in Anti-Teacher, Anti-Public Employee Decision

In a "major victory" for Gov. Rick Scott, with the key vote coming from Chiles appointee Justice Barbara J. Pariente, "the Florida Supreme Court narrowly ruled against state workers in allowing the state to retain the 3 percent levy on their salaries to offset the state’s investment into the Florida Retirement System."

Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders hailed the ruling as victory for Florida taxpayers, while unions decried it as a short-sighted attempt to balance the state budget on the backs of state workers.
"The decision, written by Justice Jorge Labarga, overturned a lower court ruling that declared the pension changes unconstitutional because they impaired the contractual rights of the FRS employees, took private property without full compensation and violated employee collective bargaining rights."
Labarga cited a 1981 ruling involving the Florida Sheriffs Association and upheld the constitutional right of the Legislature to revise the retirement contract with existing state workers.

“We recognized the authority of the Legislature to amend a retirement plan prospectively, so long as any benefits tied to service performed prior to the amendment date are not lost or impaired,’’ the ruling said, noting that the court “took special care in Florida Sheriffs” not to bind future legislatures.

Justices R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and James E.C. Perry strongly disagreed with the ruling. Lewis and Perry wrote separate dissenting opinions. Justice Barbara Pariente wrote a concurring opinion.

Lewis accused the state of failing to meet its burden to prove it had a good reason to break the contract with state employees “because facing a budget shortfall is not enough.”

"Florida Supreme Court upholds law requiring state workers to contribute 3 percent of pay to state pension plan". See also "Rick Scott, Republican Legislature Vindicated: Florida Supreme Court Upholds Pension Reforms" and "High court upholds pension fee for government workers". (Here's a .pdf link)

Pariente's role as the key fourth vote (with three other Justices, all Charlie Crist appointees) has thus far escaped the media notice it deserves, but perhaps not for long: Pariente was appointed to the Florida Supreme Court by Lawton Chiles*, and was thought to be aligned with Justices Lewis, Quince and Perry.

Dissenting Justice Lewis opined that the majority decision

impacts a significantly important category of Florida workers, our first responders, those who provide safety and security for all citizens, those who provide education and safety for our children, and thousands of other Floridians who provide essential services for all Floridians each and every day.
And in words that will no doubt be appreciated by Florida's hard working civil servants:
These governmental employees are not second class citizens but are entitled to the full protection of the law just as all other Floridians enjoy.

The contractual rights of government employees as established in the statute we consider today cannot receive lesser protection than other contractual rights because to do so would violate the "rule of law" and reduce all to the status of being subject to the whim of those who may be in power at any particular time and from time to time.

Lewis - joined by fellow dissenters Peggy Quince and James E.C. Perry - takes down Pariente's illogical reasoning:
The interpretation advanced by Justice Pariente is certainly without support and contrary to logical analysis. Justice Pariente seeks to justify and bolster this approach by suggesting that the State may retroactively alter vested rights and change its obligations without statutory authority to the contrary. In my view, this is not supported by Florida or federal law in this context. Justice Pariente’s entire opinion is based on her statement that there is no “impairment of contracts” here, a position with which I fundamentally and profoundly disagree.
(Slip opinion at pp. 29-30).

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*Note: an earlier version mistakenly indicated that the author of the concurring opinion (and the key fourth vote) was a Crist appointee. Crist actually appointed the other three (of the four) Justices that ruled against teachers and other public employees in the landmark pension case.

Perhaps the Teachers Union and other public employee unions will recall that Charlie Crist appointed three of the four adverse Justices in this landmark case when they decide who to endorse for Governor.

Ethics reform?

Scott Maxwell: "Tallahassee is sending encouraging signs that lawmakers are finally listening to citizens fed up with lawmakers who seem more interested in lining their pockets than serving the public." "Ethics reform in Legislature? Be still, my heart".

"State budget was balanced on the backs of public workers"

The Tampa Bay Times editorial board acknowledges that "being right legally [which is by no means the case with the FRS decision] and politically does not always translate into good public policy."

The court's 4-3 opinion is an unequivocal victory for Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature, and it further erodes what little influence the teacher unions and other public unions had left.
"The court's 4-3 opinion is an unequivocal victory for Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature, and it further erodes what little influence the teacher unions and other public unions had left."
But that silver lining does not mean the governor and state legislators deserve praise for their treatment of public employees, misleading rhetoric and state budget priorities. State workers now have gone six years without a general pay raise, yet their pay has been effectively cut 3 percent by the forced pension contribution. Scott and state lawmakers made the change in 2011, at the same time they cut spending to public schools by 8 percent and eliminated thousands of public jobs. The era of good benefits and job security but modest pay for teachers and other public employees is over, the consequences will not be good for public education and government service.

Scott campaigned on state pension reform, but requiring workers to contribute to the retirement system was never about improving the pension fund's health. The money generated by the 3 percent contributions, expected to reach $2 billion by June, just frees that much state money to be spent on other costs. The retirement system already was more than 80 percent funded and touted as one of the most financially solvent in the nation. The state budget was balanced on the backs of public workers instead of by cutting spending further or — God forbid — raising taxes.

"Pension ruling blow to public workers".

Jac Wilder VerSteeg speaks for the Palm Beach Post editorial board about the Florida Supreme Court's politically charged, if not motivated, decision: "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." "Florida lucky that pension case wasn’t decided on fairness".

Who writes these headlines?

The Sun Sentinel editorial board hacks understand that they're supposed to criticize defined benefit pension plans, so they dutifully produce headlines like this: "Florida justices: State workers must contribute to pensions".

A reader glancing at the headline might not know that State workers now have gone six years without pay raises.

Old cops, just what we need

"Legislators have been asked to increase the age local police and firefighters can begin to qualify for pension payouts and, more importantly, that overtime and base salary -- without overtime and bonus pay -- should be the determining factor to calculate pension payouts." "Senate Asked to Cut Overtime from Police, Firefighter Pension Calculations".

"Legislative priorities draw mixed reaction"

"Chamber legislative priorities draw mixed reaction from environmentalists".

Wingers wanna run wild

Bill Cotterell: "The conservative policy organization suggested giving employees a bigger stake in health insurance, dropping DROP and getting rid of state lands and buildings that are no longer needed." "Florida TaxWatch calls for $1 billion savings".

Nothing but a campaign slogan

The Sun Sentinel editorial board: "For all his business prowess, Gov. Rick Scott gives us whiplash in setting education strategy."

His first year in office, the governor slashed the budget for public schools by $3 billion. His second year, he reversed course and added back $1 billion. This year, he says education funding will be flat, or maybe a little higher, depending on which day you catch him.

But — whoa Nelly! — look at the pendulum shift the governor just took on higher education.

While details are still sketchy, Gov. Scott last week promised to ensure the University of Florida reaches the ranks of the nation's 10 best public universities.

"Scott's exciting promise for the University of Florida".

Of course "details are still sketchy", because there is nothing here except a campaign slogan.

Related: "Top education leader to universities: 'Being "good" is not good enough'".

Big of him

"After months of defending the status quo, Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday endorsed early voting changes pushed by county election supervisors. Scott now says he supports expanding early voting days from eight to 14, with six to 12 hours of voting each day, and expanded voting locations in hopes of avoiding a return to the long lines and late counts that heaped national scorn on Florida in November. " "Scott calls for more early voting days".

"Gov. Rick Scott is recommending that state should allow supervisors of elections to offer up to 14 days of early voting – the number of days allowed before lawmakers shortened the early voting period two years ago." "Florida Gov. Rick Scott calls for more early voting days, sites". See also "Scott backs ballot limit, expanded early voting".

The Sun Sentinel editorial board: "Local elections supervisors went to Tallahassee on Tuesday and made a convincing case for how to best fix Florida's voting process. On Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott lent his support to many of their proposals. Now state lawmakers should follow through and correct problems in at least four areas that produced long lines and late tabulations, a scenario that made Florida a national punchline." "Welcome news on election fixes". See also "Rick Scott: We Need Short Ballots, More Early Voting Days".