Public Employees Feel The Heat In The Sunshine State As in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states, Florida's public employees and their unions are on the defensive. Gov. Rick Scott's proposed budget cuts thousands of public jobs and requires workers to contribute part of their salaries to their pensions. Plus, the Republican-controlled Legislature is close to adopting a measure that directly targets public employee unions.
NPR logo

Public Employees Feel The Heat In The Sunshine State

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/135399201/135399646" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Public Employees Feel The Heat In The Sunshine State

Public Employees Feel The Heat In The Sunshine State

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/135399201/135399646" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

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.

BARBARA WELMUTH: 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: 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.

RICK SCOTT: 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: Doug Martin is a lobbyist who represents many state workers.

DOUG MARTIN: There may be tens of thousands of layoffs from school teachers and school employees. So this is an extremely difficult environment.

ALLEN: 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.

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

JOHN THRASHER: 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.

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

ALLEN: 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.

RICH TEMPLIN: 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: Greg Allen, NPR News, Tallahassee.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.