Proposal aimed at strengthening local pensions for firefighters and police officers begins legislative journey

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An anticipated Senate proposal aimed at strengthening local pensions for firefighters and police officers began its legislative journey Thursday, even as both sides of the contentious issue declined to fully back the measure.

The draft of the legislation, which would give cities additional flexibility in how they use the money from an insurance premium tax that funds the pensions, was formally unveiled by Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Chairman Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, at the panel’s meeting.

Under the plan, cities would no longer be required to use an increase in money from the insurance-premium tax to fund “extra benefits.” Instead, the money could be used to pay for existing benefits and then could be used to help shore up pension plans if they lack the funds to pay for future benefits. Cities could then offer additional 401(k)-style plans with any leftover funds.

The changes are likely to face a fraught landscape, landing between cities who want complete freedom to use the premium tax dollars as they see fit and police officers and firefighters who have long pushed back on city efforts to gut the current law, passed in 1999.

“We’re not taking away anyone’s pension,” Ring said. “We’re not doing that. We are taking a surgical approach to the 1999 insurance premium issue.”

But cities swiftly said they don’t support the measure because it doesn’t go far enough, in part because it still largely holds the cities to the benefits they currently offer.

“We need to make some changes now to put our plans back on a long-term sustainability. … Our city’s hands are tied,” said Cocoa Beach Mayor Dave Netterstrom.

But talking to reporters after the meeting, Ring said he wasn’t willing to go as far as cities want by completely repealing the extra benefits law. A new interpretation of the pension law by the Department of Management Services last year appears to essentially do away with the extra benefits requirement, but cities say they want the new standard written into law so that it can’t be undone by future administrations.

“I don’t support full repeal. … But I do support using that money to help shore up plans,” Ring said.

Police and fire unions also said they would oppose more sweeping changes. David Murrell, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, said the organization could back some reforms.

“But we will not go along with getting rid of (the 1999 law) altogether. … That takes us back to the dark ages, to the bad old days,” he said.

Still, the unions were more circumspect about Ring’s proposal, saying they would like to see some details changed.

“The overall scope of what I believe that the chairman and this committee are trying to do, we agree with that direction,” said Robert Suarez, vice president of the Florida Professional Firefighters.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.