TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A circuit judge's ruling invalidating the state's 3-percent employee pension contribution requirement will be decided by the Florida Supreme Court, an appellate court ruled Friday, passing the issue straight up to the state's highest court.
In a short memo, the First District Court of Appeal said it would not rule on a decision made last week by Tallahassee Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford that invalidated a state law passed last year that requires employees to pay 3 percent of their salaries toward their retirement plans.
Saying the issue was of great public importance, the appellate court urged the Florida Supreme Court to step in now instead of waiting for the inevitable appeal after a ruling at the DCA level.
Friday's announcement drew quick praise from the Florida Education Association, which sued over the pension contribution requirements.
"We?re pleased that this case will move more quickly toward its final resolution," said FEA President Andy Ford. "This could help hundreds of thousands of middle-class Florida families who have seen their incomes tumble while the governor and legislative leaders handed out tax giveaways to corporations."
Last week, Fulford barred the state from requiring employees hired before July 1, 2011, to contribute 3 percent of their income to their retirement plans. Her ruling also struck down a portion of the law that would reduce the cost-of-living increase for those employees.
Opponents of the law said they expect the state to continue withholding the 3 percent until the Florida Supreme Court rules on the issue.
The provisions struck down by Fulford's decision were expected to save the state $861 million a year -- money that would eventually have to be paid back if the appeal fails. It would cost counties around $600 million a year to have the changes reversed, likely leading to service cuts at the local level, according to local governments.
Gov. Rick Scott and the lawmakers who pushed the provisions in last year's session said the changes were needed to bring public workers' pension plans in line with the private sector and help patch a multibillion-dollar hole in the state budget. But Fulford said that was not a good enough reason to ignore a law that essentially casts the pension plan as a contract between the state and its workers.
"The Court cannot set aside its constitutional obligations because a budget crisis exists in the State of Florida," Fulford wrote. She added that ruling for the state "would mean that a contract with our state government has no meaning, and that the citizens of our state can place no trust in the work of our Legislature."
Scott told reporters last week that Fulford's ruling "doesn't make any sense" and said she had overstepped her bounds.
"This is writing the laws of the land," Scott said. "That is wrong. And I'm very comfortable this will be held to be constitutional."