The Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit this morning challenging mandatory contributions to state employee pensions, in what is likely “the first of several” legal challenges the union will bring against laws passed this year.

The lawsuit contends the 3 percent contributions, which are set to take effect July 1, impair state employee contracts, “constitute a taking of private property without full compensation” and violate government workers’ constitutional right to collective bargaining.

FEA President Andy Ford said the mandatory contributions amount to a “pay cut” and an “income tax,” “used by legislative leadership to make up a budget shortfall on the backs of teachers, law-enforcement officers, firefighters and other state workers.”

“While the state of Florida may make the policy decision to ask future employees to contribute to their retirement, it may not unilaterally change the covenant it made with current employees,” he said.

Lawmakers could have found another way to balance the budget, Ford added, such as closing existing tax loopholes.

“We know we’re making ourselves a target” by filing this lawsuit, he said, but the interest of protecting the unions’ members trumps fear of legislative payback.

FEA attorney Ron Meyer said several other measures passed this year could draw lawsuits from the teachers union, including a merit pay law that also eliminates teacher tenure (Meyer said a challenge to that measure, Senate Bill 736, is all but “a foregone conclusion”), as well as a proposed constitutional amendment that could increase vouchers for religious schools.

Plaintiffs in the suit filed today include teachers, custodians, sheriffs’ deputies (who are members of the Fraternal Order of Police),  hospital employees (representing the Service Employees International Union) and other government workers from different parts of the state (representing the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees). Two members of the Florida Police Benevolent Association moved to intervene (.pdf) on behalf of the plaintiffs shortly after the original case was filed.

The announcement from the Florida Education Association:

TALLAHASSEE – The Florida Education Association has filed a lawsuit today in Circuit Court in Tallahassee seeking to stop the 3 percent pay cut on teachers, school employees and other workers imposed by the Florida Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott.

The lawsuit asserts that the Legislature enacted legislation that was unconstitutional when that body required that 3 percent of the salaries of active members of the Florida Retirement System (FRS) be taken from such employees to serve as “contributions” toward their retirement benefits. The lawsuit further contends that the actions by the Legislature to reduce the cost-of-living benefits of those employees were also unconstitutional.

“This pay cut was used by legislative leadership to make up a budget shortfall on the backs of teachers, law-enforcement officers, firefighters and other state workers,” said FEA President Andy Ford. “It is essentially an income tax levied only on workers belonging to the Florida Retirement System. It’s unfair – and it breaks promises made to these employees when they chose to work to improve our state.

“While the state of Florida may make the policy decision to ask future employees to contribute to their retirement, it may not unilaterally change the covenant it made with current employees,” Ford said.

The lawsuit alleges that Florida law expressly provides that the Florida Retirement System is one in which employees do not have to contribute part of their salaries and describes that as a contractual obligation of the State. The suit claims that the Legislature’s action unconstitutionally impairs those contractual rights.

The FRS collects retirement money for more that 900 state and local government employers in the state, covering 655,000 active employee members and providing benefits to 219,000 retired members. It has been a non-contributory plan since 1974.

The lawsuit names Gov. Rick Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Attorney General Pam Bondi and John Miles, secretary of the Department of Management Services, as defendants in the lawsuit. Scott, Atwater and Bondi are the members of the State Board of Administration that is responsible for overseeing the Florida Retirement System Trust Fund and Miles runs the agency that oversees the fund.

Attorney Ron Meyer will be requesting the court to segregate the money it collects from the 3 percent pay cuts and place it in an interest bearing account until the lawsuit is fully settled. If the court agrees with the claims, teachers, school employees and other public workers would receive their money back with interest.

Ford said he was fully aware that FEA risked incurring the wrath of Senate President Mike Haridopolos, House Speaker Dean Cannon and other top legislative leaders and that retribution toward the union and its members could be in the offing.

“This past legislative session, FEA was fully in the crosshairs of legislative leaders with SB 736, which will upend the teaching profession, massive budget cuts to public education and a spate of bills designed to put our union, and other public-sector unions, out of business,” Ford said. “But the importance of doing the right thing and protecting the constitutional rights of our members trumps the fears of legislative payback.”

All materials filed this morning are available (or will be soon) at http://www.meyerbrookslaw.com/Litigation.htm.

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