Carol Horton, a teacher for 18 years in Palm Beach County, is now approaching her retirement years.
Horton told lawmakers last week she is worried about looming changes to the state pension fund, known as the Florida Retirement System. She questioned whether the $132 billion pension fund "will be out of money when I'm counting on it."
As the Florida Legislature approaches the final three weeks of its annual session, she asked lawmakers to back off plans to make major changes to the retirement system, which covers some 622,000 public employees in Florida, with the majority working for local school systems and county governments.
"The FRS is healthy now. It does not need to be fixed," Horton said.
But pension reform bills are moving rapidly in the Legislature, with support from House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.
Weatherford said the changes, which will not directly impact current public employees, are needed to reduce the state's long-term costs for the retirement system.
The legislation is designed to entice more workers to sign up for a 401(k)-type investment plan rather than the traditional pension. House analysts say it could save the state a cumulative $28.6 billion by 2040.
Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, who is sponsoring the House bill (HB 7173), said the proposal still gives public employees the right to pick either the traditional pension plan or opt for the investment plan, which would give them more flexibility if they left their government jobs.
"These reforms will encourage new employees to enter the plan that best fits their needs and will result in additional financial certainty for the state and our taxpayers," Boyd said after the House Appropriations Committee endorsed the plan in a 16-10 vote.
The House, which voted last year to move all newly hired workers into an investment plan, is poised again to back the revised measure. But the issue will come down to the Senate, which last year narrowly rejected the House plan.
At this point, the Senate vote is in doubt.
Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, predicted "it'll be snowing in Miami" before a majority of senators endorsed a new pension plan.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who opposed last year's pension reform bill, said he is still evaluating the new proposal, although he said he expects the senators who have raised doubts about the need to change the FRS will stay united.
"I'm not going to be the vote to keep it from passing," Latvala said. "But I don't think they have the votes."
Gaetz, the Senate president, said the latest pension legislation provides "a formula here that could work."
"It will depend upon whether there are people who are so dug in on the issues ideologically that they have their ears plugged," he said. "But I think there are enough senators who are open-minded about this that it stands a decent chance."
Like the House speaker, Gaetz said the changes will benefit the state in the long run.
"This will help a future legislature from not presiding over being a Detroit," he said.
The savings will be realized by shifting more public workers over the long term into the investment plan, which is much less costly for the state than the traditional pension plan that guarantees a benefit based on a worker's years of service and salary level.
The investment plan has been around since 2002, when it was promoted by Gov. Jeb Bush.
Public employees have the option of picking either the traditional pension or the investment plan, with one out of four workers now opting for the 401(k)-type coverage.
The investment plan is attractive for some workers because they vest more quickly in it — one year — as opposed to the eight years they would need to serve to qualify for the traditional pension. The investment funds also are portable if workers leave for a non-government job.
Under the current law, public workers pick either the traditional pension or the investment plan, with the default being the traditional pension for workers who do not make a choice.
The new legislation would make the default the investment plan.
State pension officials predict that newly hired workers would split roughly "50-50" between the two retirement plans if the bill is enacted.