Pension plan reformed for USF employees

The Florida Legislature’s new pension reform plan has left some USF faculty members frowning.

Senate Bill (SB) 2100 now mandates public employees to contribute 3 percent of their take-home salary toward the Florida Retirement System pension plan. Additionally, cost of living estimates have been eliminated from the plan and the retirement age has risen from 62 to 65.

Gregory McColm, spokesman for USF’s chapter of the United Faculty of Florida (UFF), said this comes as a blow to faculty and public employees everywhere in the state.

“The union is not happy about the result,” he said. “In general, when faculty come to USF, one of the things they look at is the entire compensation package. When someone is hired, they’re hired for a total compensation, salary and benefits together. Florida, traditionally, has rather low salaries. One thing Florida was able to offer was one of the soundest pension programs in the country.”

The former pension plan, which had been state sponsored for the past 30 years, was also in the state’s control, which prevented faculty from leaving the state if they hoped to keep their pensions.

USF Provost Ralph Wilcox said the pension cuts pose additional problems in light of the University’s reduced budget for the 2011-12 academic year.

“Quite honestly (the current legislative budget cuts) impact our ability to attract the best and the brightest faculty, and also to retain them once they are here,” he said. “We have to be careful because, at the end of the day, a great University is a great University because of the quality of its students, its faculty and its staff. We want to monitor very carefully where we stand by salary levels, rank by rank, alongside other Florida universities and nationally.”

McColm said he worries faculty will leave the state to join universities that offer better compensation and benefits.

“You find some state with a government that’s stupid and you visit faculty in that state and ask them, ‘Do you want to live in a state where your government is stupid? Why don’t you come where we are and see how we do it,'” he said. “We’re already losing top faculty and it’s going to get worse.”

The University, which did not lay off any faculty during the past year in spite of budget cuts, will be forced to examine how to maintain “top-level faculty,” Wilcox said, particularly when research dollars are also becoming increasingly difficult to obtain.

Gov. Rick Scott’s line-item veto list cuts $500,000 in research funding for Dr. William Quillen, associate dean for the College of Medicine and director of the School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences.

Quillen said his group’s neuromusculoskeletal research, which focuses on helping wounded soldiers, is something “one could make a compelling argument for funding.”

“In the grander scheme, this is what is just a bump in the road,” he said. “For this particular institute, funds have been previously requested, and we’ve seen some good years and some not so good years. We haven’t seen any permanent commitment from the state. The ability for the center to add research faculty and other support elements will be slowed down.”

McColm, who said UFF hopes to recruit more faculty members in the fall to fight the state Legislature, said he finds the recent decline in Florida’s public investment in higher education alarming.

“There was a strong feeling around the world that investment in higher education was a major component for dealing with this coming century,” he said. “It isn’t just Gov. Scott, it’s the Chamber of Commerce, it’s associated industries, the Republican Party. It’s all these people who have resigned themselves to becoming part of the Third World. The very clear message we’re getting from the Legislature is that they do not care what happens in the 21st century.”

Though he said the message being sent may not have been intentional, he believes much change is necessary for Florida to compete globally.

“We’re looking at something that sort of resembles a train wreck,” he said. “You have a few senior people who got so wrapped up in ideological concerns that they did all sorts of stupid things. The amount of damage that has been done is enough. The organizations and politicians have committed themselves to a very stupid collection of policies that is going to wreak havoc on the state for years to come.”