Buoyed by soaring revenues, the House is moving to spend $3.1 billion to reverse some of the changes made in 2011 to cut pension benefits for state workers.

The House Appropriations Committee unanimously passed HB 239, which would restore the 3% cost of living adjustment for the 629,073 members of the Florida Retirement System Pension Plan and reduce the retirement ages for different classes of members.

For example, Special Risk Class members, including police, firefighters, prison guards and others, could retire after 25 years or by age 55, instead of the 30 years or age 60 requirements under current law.

Those changes were approved in 2011 as lawmakers sought to cut spending in the face of a $3.6 billion budget shortfall as Florida emerged from the Great Recession. Now, revenues are vastly outpacing expectations, boosted by federal COVID-19 stimulus funds and rampant inflation, which has hiked sales tax revenues.

House Appropriations Chair Tom Leek, an Ormond Beach Republican, said the move is reflecting the state’s improved financial position as well as an attempt to recruit and retain state workers, especially law enforcement.

“We’re in a different time today than we were in 2011,” Leek said. “I think it’s a recognition of that but when I go out into my community, I talk to our law enforcement officers in particular. And you talk about what it takes to keep folks in those high demand jobs, you have to be competitive.”

The push to pad pensions is a reversal from recent House leaders, who have sought to reduce benefits further, but it wouldn’t reverse the 3% contribution for workers required by the 2011 pension bill.

It would, however, make it easier for workers to enter the Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP), which allows workers to defer benefits while continuing to work for the state or a participating local entity, and increase the maximum time to be in DROP from five years to eight years. The interest applied to a DROP benefit would increase from 1.3% to 4%.

“These changes will help our state and local governments retain experienced staff for a much longer period of time,” said Rep. Demi Busatta Cabrera, a Coral Gables Republican and the bill’s sponsor, adding that the state has a 16% vacancy rate in its workforce.

The Senate doesn’t include the COLA changes in their version of the bill (SB 224).

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