Florida's statewide teachers union is taking the lead in a lawsuit that seeks to block a requirement for teachers, state workers and many local government employees to contribute 3 percent of their pay to the state pension fund.
The suit filed Monday also challenges a phase-out of cost-of-living increases in retirement benefits.
The Florida Education Association filed the class action on behalf of 11 government workers representing several unions in state circuit court here against what FEA President Andy Ford called "essentially an income tax" on public employees. The Florida Police Benevolent Association immediately filed a motion on behalf of an Orange County sheriff's deputy and a state correctional officer to join the suit.
The Florida Retirement System covers 655,000 active employees and provides benefits to 219,000 retirees.
The suit alleges the contribution requirement and benefit reduction violate existing public employees' contract rights that date back to a law passed in 1974 and which are guaranteed by the Florida Constitution.
"We believe that a promise is a promise and the state of Florida should abide by promises it makes," Ford said.
The suit, though, doesn't challenge the state's ability to impose the changes on workers hired after the new pension law goes into effect on July 1.
It also alleges the law violates a state constitutional provision that guarantees employees the right to bargain collectively. The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the law without negotiating with public employee unions.
Gov. Rick Scott, who had sought an even larger 5 percent contribution, said he was confident the law will stand up in court.
"Asking state employees to pay a small percentage into their pensions is common sense," the Republican governor said in a statement. "Floridians who don't work in government are required to pay into their own retirement. This is about fairness for those who don't have government jobs. Plus, we are ensuring a pension will be there for state employees when they retire."
The suit, though, won applause from Florida House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders of Key West. He said House Democrats "fought this unconstitutional attempt to balance the state budget on the backs of our public servants."
The employee contributions won't be used to strengthen the pension plan, which is rated as one of the nation's best-funded. Instead, they will be offset by equal reductions in employer contributions. That's expected to save the state and local governments $1.2 billion the first year.
At least one public employer in Pensacola, though, is not taking the savings. Escambia County is giving its employees a 3.1 percent pay raise to offset the pension contributions
The suit was filed on behalf of two teachers from Hillsborough and Columbia counties, a pair of school maintenance workers from Leon and Madison counties, two Santa Rosa County sheriff's deputies, a Hillsborough Community College staffer, a Hillsborough County solid waste worker and three employees of the Jackson Health System in Miami-Dade County.
The plaintiffs are members of FEA, local teachers unions, the Fraternal Order of Police, the AFL-CIO, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union-Health Care Florida Local 1991.
The suit names Scott as a defendant along with Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, all members of the State Board of Administration, as well as Department of Management Services Secretary John Miles. The board oversees pension fund investments and Miles administers the plan.
FEA lawyer Ron Meyer said he expects the case to wind up in the Florida Supreme Court regardless of how it's decided at the trial court level.
The plaintiffs have asked Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford to order that the state set aside the employee contributions in an interest-bearing account until the issue is resolved. The employees then could be reimbursed with interest if they ultimately win.
The suit is the first of what may be several by the teachers union challenging what Ford called "reckless legislation that was dreamed up by legislative leaders and heartily endorsed by our governor."
Meyer said "it would be a fair statement to say we will be litigating" portions of a new law affecting teacher pay and work conditions. It sets up a merit pay system based heavily on how much each teacher's students improve on standardized tests and eliminates tenure for new hires.
Ford said the Republican-controlled Legislature made "the state of Florida a colder and harsher state" by passing such laws instead of trying to fix the state's economy.