Senate panel to discuss Jacksonville’s pension liability surtax Tuesday

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Without a doubt, the most interesting Senate committee meeting of the new Florida Legislative Session for Jacksonville will occur Tuesday morning.

The Committee on Community Affairs meets to consider nine bills, but it’s the sixth that should interest Jacksonville locals.

The Discretionary Sales Surtax bill, introduced by Sen.  Rob Bradley and co-sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, authorizes a county to “apply proceeds of a pension liability surtax toward reducing the unfunded liability of a defined benefit retirement plan or system; requiring that surtax proceeds be used to reduce or amortize the unfunded liability of the system or plan, etc.”

The Lenny Curry administration will tell you that this isn’t a new tax, that there’s no additional tax burden imposed on Jacksonville residents.

In a Friday email to city employees, Curry reiterated his contention that the proposed solution “does not increase the burden on taxpayers” and keeps his campaign promise to solve the unfunded liability burden “while empowering us to resolve this long-term challenge that is restricting our investments in public safety, youth services, neighborhoods and economic development.”

Curry and his team are in what literary theorist Rene Girard might have called a “double bind,” if Girard had ever turned his deconstructionist talents to state pension legislation. On one hand, they have to resolve this unfunded liability. On the other hand, they have to conquer the gaps in city services that started in earnest about the time of the 2008 economic crash and have persisted, as the unfunded liability swelled and city government under the previous administration chose austerity over tax hikes.

What will be worth watching is how panel Vice Chairman Jeff Brandes treats the bill. He’s a fan of the defined contribution model being imposed on new hires.

Less friendly to such a move is firefighter union chief Randy Wyse, who says such a precondition for him and his team is a nonstarter, as The Florida Times-Union’s Tia Mitchell reported a few days ago.

The Curry team proposed defined contribution initially, yet their proposal is malleable in the face of political reality. They are willing to sacrifice that condition to secure the revenue source. Yet they are driven by a sense of urgency. That urgency, despite Curry’s recent lobbying in Tallahassee might not be shared statewide.

Happily for Curry, he should have meaningful support on Council for the next couple of years on this issue. If current trends hold, the next two Council Presidents will be Lori Boyer, a pragmatist to the core, followed by John Crescimbeni, who is uniquely willing to take on public sector unions in the name of the greater civic good.

Thus, even if this measure does not clear Tallahassee this Session, the groundwork is there for constructive engagement on the fourth floor of City Hall.

Paradoxes, of course, will abound, and be easily messaged by the mayor’s critics. One such potential talking point: How can the “public safety” mayor be willing to embark on a course that will lead, they will say, to increased attrition among the rank and file?

There will be time for handwringing and for demagoguery. For now, a much more modest goal for SB 1652 is getting through its first of three Senate committees.

A.G. Gancarski

A.G. Gancarski has written for since 2014. He is based in Northeast Florida. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter: @AGGancarski


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