State workers will be in line for pay raises, although the plan is coupled with major changes in the state pension fund and employee health insurance, under a bill approved Monday by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The legislation (SB 7030) represents a compromise between the Senate, which supported a pay increase, and the House, which has been pushing for state pension changes for the last half-dozen years.
Sen. Bill Montford, a Democrat whose Tallahassee-based district encompasses many state workers, questioned why the Senate was embracing a pension change that in previous years had stalled in the chamber.
"All of a sudden now we've got a pay raise wrapped up with retirement, with insurance," Montford said. "Why are we doing it this way?"
Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who made a state-worker pay raise his top priority for the session, said both chambers are getting something from the bill.
"It either succeeds together or it fails together," Latvala said.
The Appropriations Committee took up the compromise as House and Senate leaders worked to finish negotiating a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. They face a Tuesday deadline for finishing the budget if they hope to end the legislative session Friday, as scheduled. That is because of a constitutionally required 72-hour "cooling off" period before lawmakers can vote on the budget.
The $186 million pay raise, planned to take effect Oct. 1 for most workers, would provide a $1,400 raise for workers earning less than $40,000 a year and a $1,000 raise for state employees earning more than $40,000.
Rank-and-file law enforcement officers would be in line for a 5 percent increase beginning July 1. The law enforcement members were also exempted from the pension changes.
The measure also contains a provision that would allow firefighters to qualify for “in the line of duty” pension benefits if they contract certain types of cancer.
"I think this is a good bill all the way around for our employees and the people who put their lives on the line for us every day," Latvala said.
The bill contains a major adjustment in base pay for correctional officers in the state prison system, setting a $33,500 base for rank-and-file officers rising to $44,589 for captains. The pay rates for all officers would be adjusted so that they earn at least the base or receive a $2,500 increase, whichever is greater.
Newly hired correctional officers could receive $1,000 bonuses if they are hired at institutions that had a 10 percent or higher vacancy rate in the prior quarter.
The minimum pay for law enforcement officers, including Florida Highway Patrol members, in the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles would increase to $36,223.
Assistant public defenders would receive a 6 percent increase, although assistant state attorneys would not receive a similar raise.
"We're just trying to stem the turnover," Latvala said about the adjustments in base pay.
State attorneys and public defenders would receive a 10 percent increase to $169,554 beginning Oct. 1.
Other officials receiving a 10 percent raise include Supreme Court justices ($178,420), appellate judges ($169,554), circuit judges ($160,688) and county judges ($151, 822).
The pay-raise package is linked to changing the state pension program so that newly hired public workers who do not actively choose a retirement plan would "default" into 401(k)-type investment plan rather than the traditional pension coverage. Currently newly hired workers default into the traditional pension plan, where they can vest in the benefits if they work at least eight years for a public agency.
The default change was strongly opposed by unions that represent many of the 630,000 active workers in the pension fund, which provides retirement benefits for teachers, county workers, university and college personnel and state workers.
Linda Russell, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association, which represents teachers, said school workers will receive substantially fewer retirement benefits if they rely on an investment plan rather than the traditional pension benefits.
“It seems that we are doing everything that we can to eliminate teaching as a profession in Florida,” Russell said. "We are having problems paying them. There is very little job security, and now there will be no retirement.”
But Latvala defended the plan, noting the legislation gives workers nine months after they are hired to decide whether to join the regular pension plan or opt for the investment plan. Only the workers who make no choice will default into the investment plan, Latvala said.
"If someone working for me couldn't make a decision like that in the first nine months, I'm not sure I want them working for me," Latvala said. "I'm not sure they're smart enough to work for me."
The legislation also contains a House plan designed to provide more health-care coverage options for state workers.
Under the measure, employees could choose among four different levels of health-insurance benefits beginning in 2020. The proposal would provide an incentive for employees to choose coverage that would cost less than the amount of money the state contributes for premiums.
If employees choose lower-premium plans, which could carry higher deductibles, they could receive additional benefits, ranging from a salary increase to other health coverage benefits.