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Public Employees Feel The Heat In The Sunshine State

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Public Employees Feel The Heat In The Sunshine State


Public Employees Feel The Heat In The Sunshine State

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Let's check in now on the budget battle in Florida. There, as in several other states, public employees and their unions are on the defensive. Florida's governor, Republican Rick Scott, has proposed a budget that cuts thousands of public jobs and requires workers to contribute part of their salaries to their pensions. The Republican-controlled legislature is now close to adopting that measure. NPR's Greg Allen has our report from Tallahassee.

GREG ALLEN: It's a familiar sight in Florida's Capitol building - a noontime rally under the rotunda held by members of the state's public unions. This event is billed as a performance evaluation of Governor Rick Scott's first 100 days in office. Barbara Welmuth, a teacher and union member from the Tampa area, rated the governor's job performance as unsatisfactory.

Ms. BARBARA WELMUTH (Teacher): As the CEO of Florida, Governor, I ask you to keep your promise - to fully fund public education and to change your position on taxing the teachers, firefighters and police officers of this state.

ALLEN: Rick Scott, a former hospital CEO, campaigned on the promise that he would run Florida like a business. One of his first proposals was to make big changes to the state pension system.

Among the changes, he wants to require public workers to contribute part of their salaries toward their pensions. For workers, it amounts to a pay cut -somewhere between three and five percent a year. The unions call it a tax. Governor Scott calls it a common sense reform.

Governor RICK SCOTT (Republican, Florida): We should have done this before. We don't have a plan that's fully funded. We're the only state where state employees are not participating. So we've got to do something that the employees know that they have a plan and something that's fair to taxpayers.

ALLEN: As state pension plans go, fiscally-speaking, Florida's actually is in relatively good shape. But in a state with a $4 billion budget deficit, the legislature has embraced the idea because of its savings - estimated at about $1 billion. But for state, county and local employees in Florida, the pension changes were just the beginning. The governor has pledged to pare state worker roles by 5,000 jobs and has proposed steep cuts in education spending.

Doug Martin is a lobbyist who represents many state workers.

Mr. DOUG MARTIN (Lobbyist, AFSCME): There may be tens of thousands of layoffs from school teachers and school employees. So this is an extremely difficult environment.

ALLEN: Florida's governor and legislature are also moving toward privatizing some prisons, public hospitals and health services. If those plans go forward, they would move thousands of state workers into the private sector and likely make big changes to their pay and benefits.

In Florida, just like in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states, members of public unions feel they've become targets. Juan Gonzales says they're right. Gonzales is a lobbyist with Associated Industries of Florida, a powerful business group in Tallahassee. He traces the rancor back to an education bill, passed last session by the legislature. After many rallies and much lobbying, teachers convinced then-governor Charlie Crist to veto it.

Mr. JUAN GONZALES (Associated Industries of Florida): But the union was very successful. They showed their strength and their power last session. And so I think, you know, members of the Republican leadership thought, well, hey, these guys really came to bat, so let's put them on the defensive.

ALLEN: Others here in Tallahassee call it payback. If so, it's not confined to Florida. What's happening here is happening in other states too. One example is a bill that would ban public unions in Florida from collecting dues from members through paycheck deductions. Similar legislation has been introduced in other states, including California and Alabama.

Florida State Senator John Thrasher says his bill is not about payback, or a national anti-labor agenda.

State Senator JOHN THRASHER (Republican, Florida): To me it's about what I campaigned on in my district. And that's limited government. Government simply ought not be in the business of being the tax collector for people who are involved in political processes.

ALLEN: That view was not shared yesterday by more than 100 members of public unions, who packed a hearing room in Tallahassee - people like Steve Sarnoff, who works in the city of Clearwater's Solid Waste Department.

Mr. STEVE SARNOFF (Public Employee): It's to gag the voice of the working people of Florida. That's what this is about, pure and simple.

ALLEN: Despite the strong union opposition, the dues deduction ban was passed by a Senate committee and seems likely to become law between now and the beginning of May, when the legislative session comes to a close.

The head of Florida's AFL-CIO, Rich Templin, concedes that the best he can hope for this session is to limit the damage and look to the future.

Mr. RICH TEMPLIN (President, AFL-CIO, Florida): I don't think that anybody is looking at this session in isolation. May is not the end. May is just the beginning. And folks need to get mobilized and ready to make a change in government in November.

ALLEN: That's November of 2012, and for members of Florida public unions looking at pay cuts and layoffs, that's a long way off.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Tallahassee.

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