State/National News

Judge Rules Florida Pension Changes Unconstitutional

By Mary Ellen Klas, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau
Published Tuesday, March 6, 2012

TALLAHASSEE – Leon County Circuit Court Judge Jackie Fulford ruled against the state of Florida on Tuesday, declaring unconstitutional a 2011 law that cut state worker salaries 3 percent, or $1 billion, and shifted the money into the state’s pension fund.

If the ruling – which will be appealed – is upheld, lawmakers would be forced to repay state workers the $1 billion they started collecting July 1, 2011, and to plug a corresponding $1 billion budget hole.

Lawmakers would then have to cut an additional $1 billion from the $70 billion budget they are expected to pass this week.

In her ruling, Fulford said that she understands the “role of the judiciary is to interpret the law before it; not to make law” but to do that she would have had to ignore the law and added, “This court cannot
set aside its constitutional obligations because a budget crisis exists in the State of Florida.”

She ruled that the Legislature’s action was “an unconstitutional impairment of plaintiff’s contract with the State of Florida, an unconstitutional taking of private property without full compensation,
and an abridgement of the rights of public employees to collectively bargain over conditions of employment.

“To find otherwise would mean that a contract with our state government has no meaning, and that the citizens of our state can place no trust in the work of our Legislature. Those are the findings this Court refuses to make.”

The idea to force state workers to direct part of their paycheck toward their pension plan was a legislative priority of Gov. Rick Scott. He wanted workers to funnel 5 percent of their paychecks into the pension system; the Legislature ultimately agreed to require 3 percent contributions.

The Florida Education Association and other state and local government unions sued the state last year, and Fulford heard arguments in the case Oct. 25.

Republican lawmakers reacted swiftly to the decision.

“I am deeply disappointed in Judge Fulford’s decision today,” said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merrit Island. She has proven once again that she is an activist judge who has no problem overstepping her
authority and overruling the decisions of the state’s elected representatives and the critical role that we play as the budget writers for the State of Florida.”

“The ruling of a trial court judge is the first and not the final step,” added House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. “Today’s ruling will have no immediate impact on the passage of the 2012-13 General
Appropriations Act, which the House will take up this Friday in fulfillment of our constitutional responsibility to pass a balanced budget.”

On Monday, Haridopolos said that if Fulford ruled against the state, there would be “chaos,” and the state would appeal the ruling immediately.

Rep. Jim Waldman, a Coconut Creek Democrat and a lawyer, said he believed the state should start making plans to balance the budget without state employee contributions.

The Legislature “can’t count on that 3 percent coming in this year,” he said.