The legislature, led by Will Weatherford, son-in-law of former House Speaker Allen Bense, is moving to end the existing opportunity for public employees to get a reasonable pension after decades of dedicated public service.
They offer the argument that promising government workers a defined retirement creates a potentially unacceptable financial liability on the backs of Florida taxpayers. “Potentially” is emphasized because this is a disingenuous argument based upon the premise that the Florida Retirement System cannot be self supporting, which is false.
The proponents of this massive shift in public policy ask, why should government workers be assured a retirement income when retirement for the “rest” of the working world is subject to the economic winds of the time and there are no guarantees.
Their answer is to have public employees deposit part of their earnings, combined with any contribution that might be provided from the public employer, in some kind of investment program that would rise or fall with Florida’s ever undulating economic tides. Then, at the end of their working lives, this “investment” would theoretically earn enough income for them to live on when they are no longer able to earn it by being employed. They say this gives public employees “complete control of their money” but they remain silent on how little return it will provide when needed, given the ability of a low-earning government worker to make complex investments in a very fickle and dangerous stock market with any degree of competence.
This push is made worse because it is a fraud being perpetuated upon those unable to object. Speaking up these days is like standing up in foxhole in the middle of a firefight. The probability of survival is nil.
Removing a public worker’s expectations for a reasonable retirement completely ignores the reasons these folks choose to work for the public in the first place. Most choose to suffer the personal disrespect from elected officials, tea-baggers, and the right wing of this country’s Republican body-politic because they want to make the place a better world to live in, and they fully believe that what they do, even if only in a small way, will help achieve that.
But more importantly, they do not work for the public because they have any remote expectation that they will be able to accumulate personal wealth. They know they will not. They will never, for example, have the opportunity to build a business and get rich selling widgets, designing bridges or buying and selling hospitals. Whether they consciously acknowledge it or not, they give up these opportunities when they agree to work for the public.
Most folks who go to work every day for government probably do know and understand this, but they believe that by doing their jobs, whether it’s providing a water supply, approving housing developments, protecting water quality or managing flood waters, they believe that what they do is important to the future of all our lives and our way of life.
For this, they agree to be paid from the bottom of the income barrel and suffer sometimes years with no increase in income, even when the cost-of-living threatens to reduce the quality of their families’ living to that of the most impoverished. In return for giving up the opportunity to ever be rich, they believe their ability to survive when they can no longer earn their way will be the guaranteed availability of a reasonable and dependable income to feed, house and clothe them when they can no longer do it for themselves and need it.
Scott and the Weatherfordites will also have you believe that the Florida retirement system cannot be self-supporting. This is nonsense. Until recently, it has been one of the healthiest retirement programs in the nation because there has been enough money coming in to reasonably meet the cost of its anticipated retirement payouts in the future. It’s only in recent years as the legislature kept upping the obligatory contributions of the employing agencies and reducing the amount the employee was expected to contribute that the program has become weakened.
This situation can be fixed by going back to such times when the vesting period was longer, employees made a significant contribution, and the retirement age was older. Yes, it will be resisted by the public worker but it will be immeasurably better than disingenuously trying to fool them into thinking they will be able to set aside enough of their constrained public incomes over their careers to keep them above the poverty level after retirement, which, again, is nonsense.
Finally, Scott and Weatherford, if they continue to disrespect the public worker by denying them a decent retirement and suddenly require all new public employees to go the 401k route, they will trigger the very mess they say they are trying to avoid. If they require all new employees to invest in the stock market through private investment programs instead of in the Florida Retirement System, they will be shutting down the life-blood of revenue the system needs to sustain itself and the remaining obligation to current retirees will, as they fear, fall indeed upon the backs of the taxpayers. This wouldn’t happen until the system’s reserves are depleted but it will surely happen and it would be a stupidity of epochal proportion.
The burden without the contributions from the worker in terms of production and dollars would be tremendous. It would be dead weight.
Simply put, if Will Weatherford and Rick Scott take away the defined benefit opportunity from public employees by trying to convince them they will be able to put enough money in a 401k investment program to assure they will have enough to live on after a lifetime of low wages, it will be a travesty. The Florida Retirement System can be refortified and fixed without forcing an alternative that is disingenuous and misleading to the point of being fraudulent upon those who are defenseless and will suffer the most because of it.