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A Times Editorial

The police pension game

The Legislature should resist political pressure and leave the negotiation of police and firefighter pension benefits to the cities.

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 1999

A conservative Legislature that preaches local control is about to rewrite contracts between cities and their police officers. Let no one pretend this is about public safety. The pension benefits that lawmakers want to mandate for all police and firefighters in Florida are owed to one of Tallahassee's most common political combinations: money and influence.

This is not the story that is being passed about the State Capitol. There, lawmakers like to suggest that the state, because it administers the two insurance fees that contribute 16 percent of the cost of pension plans, needs to standardize all pension benefits. Oddly enough, though, lawmakers haven't bothered to perform their own actuarial study to determine how much their new "minimum standards" for pensions will cost.

More telling, the cities -- which hire and fire these employees and negotiate their collective bargaining agreements, and whose taxpayers subsidize roughly 56 percent of the pensions and 100 percent of the salaries and other benefits -- are not being asked for their opinion. In fact, lawmakers don't even want to hear what the cities are saying or to review the results of a PriceWaterhouse Coopers study that found the enhanced pension benefits would cost at least $55-million more a year.

What we do know, of course, is that police and fire unions are hellbent on increasing their pensions. Unable to negotiate such increases with their employers, they turned instead to lawmakers, and they began writing fat campaign checks. Between 1994 and 1996, 31 police unions in Florida poured $3-million into the campaigns of political candidates. Last fall, police and firefighter unions gave at least another $275,000.

Just ask Margo Fischer what it means. Fischer, a freshman representative from St. Petersburg, made the mistake last year of challenging the pension bill, arguing correctly that it usurped local authority. The result? Last fall, she lost her job to a St. Petersburg chiropractor whose campaign was propped up by $13,100 in police and fire union money from throughout the state.

Fischer is gone now, and so is Gov. Lawton Chiles, who had the political courage last year to veto the pension bill. So this year, the House Republicans already have pushed a pension bill through two committees and are preparing to send it to the floor during the first week of the 1999 session, beginning March 2. They are still trying to pretend that city taxpayers won't get stuck with the bill.

One does not have to oppose greater pension benefits for police officers and firefighters to understand why this pension game is offensive. Lawmakers are using the thinnest of pretexts -- their control of a casualty and property insurance premium tax -- to jump into the middle of an employment benefit decision that belongs to the employers, namely the cities. The unions are taking their campaign money and political influence to the Capitol to negate contracts the cities negotiated in good faith.

A rational person can be strongly supportive of police and firefighters and still oppose this pension bill. But this is not about rational public policy. It's about police union politics. Their badges may confer them authority on the streets, but they've learned that campaign money opens doors in the Capitol.

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