Florida negotiating contract with union, state workers

Florida is negotiating a contract on working conditions for the nearly 14,000 members of AFSCME Florida employed by the state. While number of paid union members is small, the collective bargaining agreement will apply to all 98,000 members of the State Personnel System since Florida is a right-to-work state. The agreement expires June 30.

Contract negotiations are proceeding against the backdrop of Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed budget, which balances a $1 billion tax cut with no pay raises for the state workforce and elimination of 1,386 positions and a net reduction of 864 jobs.

Per capita, Florida spends less and employs fewer people to inspect restaurants, enforce regulations and handle the paperwork produced by a modern society than any other state in the country.

That state of affairs is self defeating, critics charge, since it is increasingly difficult for Florida to attract bright young people to public service, especially if the terms are worse than neighboring Alabama, Mississippi and other Southern states.

Less taxes, less government

Scott’s proposal follows the small-government recipe for policy making the governor has pursued since his election in 2010. Back then, he explained his mix of fewer taxes and less spending by government would make the environment more business friendly.

That’s important, Scott said, because “capital goes where it is welcomed.” Scott’s assumption is once it’s here it will create private sector jobs and a more robust economy.

When the state collects fewer dollars to pay for government services, then it must, in Scott’s words, seek more “efficiencies.” To the rank-and-file state employee, that’s a message to work harder with fewer colleagues.

Scott has reduced number of workers in the State Personnel System from 108,700, when he took office in 2011, to 98,100 today, according to the Department of Management Services Annual Workforce Report. In the first five budgets that Scott signed, he persuaded the Legislature to pass a regimen of tax cuts that will “save Florida families $4 billion during his second term.”

The numbers are benchmarks toward Scott’s goal of making Florida first in job creation. Scott counts a million private sector jobs created during his five years of tenure, while reducing the cost of government.

In his latest budget proposal, Scott wants to add 472 jobs at the Department of Corrections and eliminate 718 jobs at the Department of Health, which he says is no longer needed due to “streamlined processes and administrative efficiencies.”

“The Florida First budget recommends $48.8 million in savings and a decrease of 1,368 positions as a result of state agencies continued efforts to become more efficient,” Scott said when he released his budget recommendations. He also boasted Florida has fewer state employees per capita than any state in the Union.

Not everyone sees that as a distinction to be proud of.

How low can Florida go?

Senator Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said he believes Scott and the Legislature have put the “cart before the horse,” when it comes to cutting taxes and the number of state employees.

“Has anyone asked how many state employees should we have per capita? Not as long as I’ve been here,” said Montford, who was a public school teacher and principal before entering politics more than 30 years ago.

“We haven’t discussed that. We in the Senate and I don’t know of anyone else who has discussed these numbers,” said Montford, who taught middle school math and eventually became superintendent of Leon County Schools.

Montford represents 11 counties and 25,815 state employees, who patrol highways, maintain state parks, inspect hospitals and restaurants and handle the paperwork produced by a modern mega-state of 20 million residents that attracted 98 million tourists last year.

He described a situation in which state employees are overworked, underpaid and hard to replace because of the working conditions.

“If you want good government then you have to pay for it. If you want government to run efficiently, like a business, then you have to have an adequate number of employees, but we don’t even know how many state employees we should have in Florida,” Montford said.

Scott has promoted Florida’s business-friendly climate in California, Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, New York and elsewhere in a quest for private-sector jobs. In New York he told the Post, “We’re in the business of growing opportunities for families, not growing government.”

Scott looks at the dwindling state unemployment numbers, half of what it was when he took office, and sees it as vindication his prescription for an ailing economy is working. Montford looks at the state of state employees and sees a coming crisis.

A former county commissioner, he said there comes a point at which cutting taxes and employees is not the responsible thing to do. Montford compares it to going on a diet. At some point, he said, you have to stop.

“If you lose any more weight you become anemic. If you lose any more, you would be hurting your health,” Montford said. “We are already at that point with the number of state employees; they have a lot to do with the quality of life in Florida.

“Who wants to come to Florida if the roads and bridges are collapsing? Who wants to come to Florida if the crime rate is high,” Montford asked. “I agree with the governor, philosophically, that works, but there is a limit. There is always a limit; even in losing weight there is a limit to how much weight you should lose.”

While Florida has been on a tax “diet,” it continues to be a binge eater when it comes to population growth. Since Scott moved into the governor’s mansion, Florida has added about 2 million residents to reach 20 million, while reducing number of state employees providing government services by 9.7 percent.

“And our state employees have had one raise in eight years,” Montford said. “Forget if that is good or bad. It is the fact. They had one raise, a small raise; and the fact is we then took 3-percent of their salaries as a payroll tax for their retirement.”

AFSCME Florida Executive Director Andy Madtes agrees with Montford a crisis is brewing. The state’s workforce is aging - retiring - and many young people are passing on a career in public service because of the working conditions.

“Quite frankly, state employees are in crisis. There are far fewer co-workers to do the job so they struggle just to keep their heads above water, and they haven’t seen a change in pay in almost a decade,” Madtes said. “ We just want an agreement as good as the one in Alabama. Budgets have been cut beyond the bone without regard to how we provide the services Floridians need and deserve.”

For Alabama, there are 180 full-time positions per 10,000 residents and average pay of $47,998. The average pay for Florida’s state employees is $43,000 and there are 94 full-time workers per 10,000 residents.

David Jacobsen, vice-president of AFSCME’s Florida Retirees Chapter, was a 40-year state employee. It pains him to see things go from bad to worse.

“When I was working we always said we wanted to do better than Mississippi, (194 employees per 10,000 residents and $41,902),” said Jacobsen, who retired during the Bush administration.