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Florida Affiliate Wins Lawsuit over Pension Changes

Circuit Court Judge Jackie Fulford ruled March 6 in favor of the Florida Education Association in its lawsuit over public employees' mandatory pension "contribution," and reminded Gov. Rick Scott and Republicans in charge of the Legislature that a promise is a promise.

Last year, the FEA filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the 3 percent tax on teachers, school employees and other workers imposed by the Florida Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott.

FEA president and AFT vice president Andy Ford hailed the decision as a significant victory for public employees and, just as important, for the rule of law in our society.

"The judge's ruling confirms that the Florida Constitution requires the state to live up to its promises, including those made to the public workers by the state itself," Ford says.

AFT president Randi Weingarten notes that "the ruling is a major victory for working people in Florida and their right to the pension they pay into and rely upon for a modest, but secure, retirement. The Florida Education Association is to be applauded for taking on an important and principled fight to uphold the rule of law and protect retirement benefits earned after a lifetime of hard work teaching our kids, protecting our communities and keeping our families healthy."

For nearly four decades, Florida law has provided that pension rights are contractual rights that may not be ignored or abridged. If the Legislature decides it should make changes to the pension system, it must do so prospectively for employees who come to work after the law has been changed. Employees should not dedicate their livelihoods to public service with a contractual expectation of retirement benefits, only to have that expectation taken away.

Ron Meyer, the lead attorney in bringing the challenge, argued that three separate constitutional provisions prohibit the state from taking away employees' right to a non-contributory retirement system containing a cost-of-living provision. The court found that stripping workers of the contractually provided benefits constitutes an unlawful impairment of the obligations of contract, an action which is prohibited by the state constitution.

"We are pleased by today's decision. It once again will stop the Florida Legislature from overstepping its authority by ignoring the state's constitution," Ford says. "We urge the governor and leaders in the Legislature to embrace this decision and abide by the judge's ruling. If they decide to prolong this case with an appeal, the FEA is prepared to continue fighting for the rights of middle-class families, who make our state a better place."

Last year, legislators made the choice to balance the budget on the backs of teachers, law enforcement officers, firefighters, nurses and other public service workers so they could give corporations yet another round of tax giveaways.

"This is a strong rebuke to Gov. Rick Scott and others who see nothing wrong with going after working people and their hard-earned benefits, while offering their wealthy and well-connected friends one sweetheart deal after another," Weingarten says. "In effect, the ruling made clear that pensions are a legal contract that cannot be broken on a whim to suit the needs of politicians and their extremist agendas."

Now, the governor and legislative leaders need to address the budget shortfall the right way: by closing tax loopholes and repealing some of the multibillion-dollar tax giveaways for corporations and billionaires that they have passed in the last decade. [Florida Education Association]

March 6, 2012