A Florida circuit court ruled last week that Gov. Rick Scott (R) and Republican legislative leaders' decision last year to cut public employee salaries to offset the state's contribution to their pension fund was an unconstitutional breach of contract. "The 2011 Legislature, when faced with a budget shortfall, turned to the employees of the State of Florida and ignored the contractual rights given to them by the Legislature in 1974," Leon County Circuit Court Judge Jackie Fulford stated in her ruling. The three percent cut to public employees' salaries without renegotiating their contracts was an "unconstitutional taking of private property without full compensation" that violated the employees' right "to collectively bargain over conditions of employment," she wrote. The ruling blows a $1 billion hole in both the 2011-12 and 2012-13 state budgets. It also puts local governments back on the hook for $600 million in retirement contributions. The Florida Education Association, which had filed the lawsuit challenging the pay cut along with other state and local governments took the opportunity to chide Scott and lawmakers. "This was a gamble that the governor and legislature made last year," said Ron Meyer, an attorney for the FEA. "They gambled taxpayer's money that they could balance the budget on the backs of the hardworking employees of this state. They lost that bet today." Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R), in turn, criticized Fulford. "I think this is an example of judicial activism," he told reporters. But Meyer countered that "judicial activism is when a court ignores the law" and that Fulford, on the contrary, had based her ruling in part on a 1981 Florida Supreme Court decision which held that although the Legislature had the authority to cut public employees' salaries, it could not breach a contract it had with existing employees. "This court cannot set aside its constitutional obligations because a budget crisis exists in the State of Florida, Fulford stated. "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." Nonetheless Scott promised a "swift appeal" of the case, which has already cost the state $500,000 in legal fees. (MIAMI HERALD)
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