Judges strikes down Florida. law requiring 3 percent pension contributions by …

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature violated the state constitution when they enacted a law requiring Florida teachers, police officers, state workers and other public employees to contribute 3 percent of their pay toward their pensions, a judge ruled Tuesday in a decision that could cost the state $2 billion.

Scott said he will appeal Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford’s ruling. She wrote in her 11-page opinion that a budget crisis is no excuse for violating public employees’ collective bargaining, property and contract rights, which are guaranteed under the Florida Constitution.

“To find otherwise 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,” the Tallahassee-based judge wrote.

An ultimate decision against the contribution requirement would blow holes of about $1 billion each in state budgets for the current fiscal year and the next one, which starts July 1, but House Speaker Dean Cannon said Fulford’s decision would have no immediate effect.

“The ruling of a trial court judge is the first and not the final step,” the Winter Park Republican said in a statement.

The case likely will wind up before the Florida Supreme Court.

“This is an example of a judge wanting to write the law,” Scott said Tuesday night. “We all know this is constitutional; there’s no question about it. I don’t understand the ruling. It doesn’t make any sense to me. We’ll appeal it and I’m sure it’ll be held constitutional.”

As chief executive of the state, “I don’t get to write the laws, the Legislature (does),” Scott added. “The judiciary is not supposed to be writing laws. That is wrong.”

Scott said earlier in a statement, “The Court’s decision nullifies the will of the people and leaves Florida as one of the only states in the country in which public employees contribute nothing towards their retirement, leaving working Floridians with 100 percent of the tab.”

Several individual public employees and their unions challenged the law, including the Florida Education Association, which represents teachers and other school workers across the state.

“We once again find out that the Florida Legislature and the governor have overstepped their bounds by avoiding the constitution,” said FEA President Andy Ford. “They just don’t have respect for the law.”

At Scott’s urging, the Legislature passed the law last year as a cost-cutting measure. It allowed the state and local governments to reduce their contributions to the Florida Retirement System. That’s because Florida’s plan is rated as one of the nation’s strongest and does not currently need additional funding.

The law affects 560,000 public employees including all those at the state and county levels and some city workers.

Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford announced her ruling Tuesday in Tallahassee .

Scott initially asked for a 5 percent employee contribution. The Republican governor said it would be only fair because private sector workers and public employees in most other states contribute to their retirement plans.

Public employees and their unions called the contribution an “income tax” and said it amounts to a 3 percent pay cut after they’ve gone years without raises.

Lawyers for the state argued the Legislature has the authority to require the employee contributions under its constitutional budgeting powers, but Fulford disagreed. She noted employees have a constitutional right to collectively bargain over the terms and conditions of their employment, but no such negotiations were conducted in this case.

“The power over appropriations does not allow the Legislature to excuse negotiation,” Fulford wrote. “Otherwise, the fundamental right to collectively bargain in Florida’s constitution would be meaningless.”

Fulford also cited prior Florida Supreme Court opinions and a 1974 law that declared pension benefits to be a contract right.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, blasted the ruling, saying the former prosecutor, who was appointed to the bench in 2009 by then-Gov. Charlie Crist, “has proven once again that she is an activist judge who has no problem overstepping her authority and overruling the decisions of the state’s elected representatives.”

Fulford, who last year struck down a budget provision that would have privatized nearly 30 prison facilities in South Florida, anticipated such criticism.

“At the onset let me state clearly, the role of the judiciary is to interpret the law before it; not to make new law,” she wrote. “This court cannot set aside its constitutional obligations because a budget crisis exists in the state of Florida. To do so would be in direct contravention of this court’s oath to follow the law.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Ron Meyer defended Fulford against the judicial activism accusation.

“Judicial activism is when a court ignores the law,” Meyer said. “The law in this case is well settled.”

Meyer said the state has enough money in reserve to pay back the employees and hoped the state would not appeal.

“This was a gamble that the governor and the Legislature made last year,” Meyer said. “They gambled taxpayers’ money that they could balance the budget on the backs of the hardworking public employees of this state. And they lost that bet.”

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Associated Press writers Brendan Farrington and James L. Rosica contributed to this report.