McClatchy reported last year that state employees pay nothing into their pension plans in only two other states — Utah and Oregon. Florida unions have said that pensions are contractual rights that cannot be ignored, and that the Legislature circumvented those rights in passing the law last year.
Judge Fulford heard arguments in the case Oct. 25 and declared that the state broke the contract with employees, but she did not rule at the time whether the move was unconstitutional.
Ron Meyer, the lead attorney in bringing the challenge, argued to the court that there were three separate constitutional provisions that prohibit the state from taking away employees’ rights 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 Constitution.
Yesterday Senate President Mike Haridopolos said if Judge Fulford ruled for state employees it would "blow a billion-dollar hole" in both this year's budget and the one just negotiated for next fiscal year.
The ruling by Judge Fulford will no doubt bring more complaints by conservatives about activist judges. Fulford earlier ruled against the state on privatization of state prisons in 18 South Florida counties, blocking that action in the budget adopted by lawmakers last year.
(Update: The President of the Florida AFL-CIO, Mike Williams, has responded: "Last year, the Florida Legislature imposed the first income tax in the state’s history for all of Florida’s public employees. This income tax has already had detrimental effects on workers economic stability, many of whom have not received a raise in over six years. Today, the Circuit Court ruled in favor of Florida Education Association and these working families. We are pleased to see that justice was served and that the Florida Retirement System will continue to remain one of the best public pension plans in the world. Workers stood united and knew their time to plead their case would occur. It is time for the Legislature to look towards closing special interest tax loopholes, corporate giveaways, and exclusive private contracts to balance the budget instead of using the retirement security of Florida’s public employee.”)