- Associated Press - Friday, April 25, 2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida could try to steer public employees away from the state’s traditional pension plan under a bill passed by the Florida House.

The House voted 74-44 on Friday for a measure that would stop elected officials and top employees in state government from enrolling in the state’s traditional pension plan.

The legislation would also automatically place newly hired public employees in an investment 401(k) plan if the employees failed to make a choice within eight months of starting their jobs. It would also extend the vesting period for the pension plan from eight years to 10 years.

The measure would not take effect until July 2015 but backers of the proposal contend it will eventually save the state’s huge pension program billions of dollars.

“We have never disputed we have a sound pension system in the state of Florida,” said Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton and one of the sponsors. “That is not what this is about. It is about giving employees options and taxpayers certainty.”

But opponents questioned why the changes were needed especially since it was just three years ago that the Florida Legislature started requiring employees to use three percent of their salary to help pay for their pensions. Some legislators said it wasn’t fair to public employees including teachers, police officers and firefighters.

“When will enough be enough?” asked Rep. Mike Clelland, D-Lake Mary and a former firefighter.

The state’s main pension plan called the Florida Retirement System has nearly 1 million current and former public employees enrolled in it and it has roughly $130 billion in assets.

House Speaker Will Weatherford has made changes to the state’s pension system a top priority but he has had trouble winning support from reluctant state senators. Last year the House passed a bill that would have required all new public employees to enroll in an investment plan instead of the state’s traditional pension plan. That legislation, however, was defeated by a majority in the 40-member Senate.

This year’s bill (HB 7181) would not go as far.

But House Republicans have paired with a compromise measure that would allow for changes to firefighter and police officer pension plans run by local governments in order to win a favorable vote.

“Our reforms are moderate, they are cautious,” Weatherford said. “I think they are respectful of people currently in the system.”

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, however would not say on Friday whether there are enough votes for the legislation. Other senators have continued to express skepticism whether or not the House bill can pass.

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