Jack Latvala’s wavering support sets back possibility of pension reform

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Florida state pension reform, once thought to be dead, showed signs of life when a bill moving new hires away from the traditional guaranteed benefit plan passed its first Senate committee with an 11-6 vote on Friday.

Prospects do not look favorable for the proposal, a top priority for House Speaker Will Weatherford, after Sen. Jack Latvala withdrew his support and reduced its chances for success.

“It’s still in a state of flux,” Latvala told Michael Van Sickler of the Miami Herald. “Even if I support it, I’m not sure it has the 21 votes it needs. It’s going to be an uphill battle.”

That was somewhat of a turnaround from the previous week, when Latvala announced support of the Sen. Wilton Simpson-sponsored bill to encourage (not require) new government employees to sign up for private investment plans as opposed to the $135 billion guaranteed benefit pension system.

Back then, Latvala even claimed that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if he became a co-sponsor.

Now, things have changed.

 “I’m not 100 percent certain I’m supporting the Simpson bill,” the Clearwater Republican said on Friday.

Latvala’s latest announcement represents a setback for Weatherford, who had to abandon his own pension reform plan to support Simpson’s proposal.

“I’m extremely grateful to Sen. Simpson, Sen. Latvala and other members of the Senate who are working on a compromise package similar to what was filed in the Senate last year,” Weatherford told the Herald back then. “I’m cognizant that the bill I tried to pass last year is not going to pass the Senate this year, so we’re working on a middle ground.

“And Sen. Latvala has engaged in that process, and I believe we can get a pension deal done this year that can save tens of billions of dollars for Floridians.”

Latvala’s wavering support aside, passage of the bill was still not a sure thing. Democrats and union leaders blasted the measure, leading the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jim Boyd admitted the “doomsday scenario” that would have Republicans justify pension reform is highly unlikely.

A chorus of GOP voices repeat that the current Florida pension plan is a $20 billion liability, but the system is funded at 87 percent, writes Van Sickler.

The only way the $20 billion cost would come into play is if every government employee retired at the same time, an impossible scenario.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.