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Time to be realistic about ballooning local government pension debt

Statement from Dominic M. Calabro, President and CEO of Florida TaxWatch, the independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research institute and government watchdog.

Florida taxpayers and their children are facing more than $10.5 billion in debt due to increasingly rich and consistently over-promised government pensions. These obligations will be paid by taxpayers who don't have access to similar benefits in the private sector, because pension plan beneficiaries take on no risk, yet the taxpayers indemnify losses. State laws have forced hardworking taxpayers into larger losses because of their mandates to increase required local government benefits.

The Florida Legislature is preparing to address bloated government pension costs this year, but it is important they pursue solutions that do not create more unintended consequences for current and future taxpayers. Both the Senate and the House are considering a local pension bill that does contain some provisions to increase accountability and oversight, but their proposals do not ensure Florida's local government pension system is stable and secure, nor do they cap costs for Florida taxpayers.

While the Legislature is mulling technical changes that don't result in real pension reform, there are cities in Florida who are paying more for retirement and past service than they are paying today for salaries of police and fire officers protecting our communities because of the impact of state mandates. There are also cities that are paying hundreds of retirees thousands of dollars in bonus retirement checks while their pension plan remains hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. Still others have employees including more than seven weeks of overtime pay into their pensions, resulting in their annual pension benefits exceeding their annual salary.

These are the issues that the Legislature should address to combat ballooning local government pension debt. Fixing these loopholes would prevent retirees from gaming the system at the expense of their fellow community members who are struggling to provide for their own hoped-for retirement. While House and Senate leaders debate the future of local government pensions in 2015, it is important that this year's reforms are only a small step toward financial security and retirement stability for all Floridians. With a first step toward reform this year, I hope lawmakers will be poised next year to embrace fiscal responsibility and truly protect the promises made to retirees without unfairly burdening the taxpayers of today and tomorrow.

Florida Tax Watch

Florida TaxWatch is a statewide, non-profit, non-partisan research institute that over its 33-year history has become widely recognized as the watchdog of citizens' hard-earned tax dollars.  Its mission is to provide the citizens of Florida and public officials with high quality, independent research and education on government revenues, expenditures, taxation, public policies and programs and to increase the productivity and accountability of Florida state and local government. Its support comes from homeowners and retirees, small and large businesses, philanthropic foundations, and professional associations. On the web at www.FloridaTaxWatch.org.