Court backs Rick Scott's veto of giving Florida firefighters pay raises

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A divided appeals court Tuesday upheld the constitutionality of a 2015 decision by Gov. Rick Scott to veto $2,000 pay raises that lawmakers had included in the state budget for firefighters.

Rejecting arguments that the veto violated collective-bargaining rights, the majority of a three-member panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal said Scott acted within his authority to veto spending items in the state budget. It said lawmakers could have overridden the veto but did not.

“The Florida Constitution clearly articulates the governor's authority to veto the GAA (the General Appropriations Act, a formal name for the budget), or specific appropriations therein,” said the seven-page majority opinion, written by Judge Timothy Osterhaus and joined by Judge Harvey Jay. “It authorized him to veto the raise appropriation here. That appellant's (the International Association of Firefighters') members possess constitutional collective bargaining rights does not alter the governor's constitutional authority with respect to the GAA. The governor's action in this case comported with his constitutional authority.”

But Judge Brad Thomas dissented, pointing to a conflict between the governor's veto authority and constitutional collective-bargaining rights. The Legislature included the $2,000 raises in budget fine print, known as “proviso” language, to resolve a bargaining impasse with the firefighters' representatives.

“The state asserts that public employees, who accomplished a herculean task by convincing a majority of both houses of the Legislature to grant a positive ruling on an impasse, must then return to the Legislature and convince two-thirds of the membership to override the veto, in order to preserve the Legislature's resolution of the impasse,” Thomas wrote. “To impose such a requirement on public employees in essence holds that public employees have no effective constitutional right to collective bargaining, as they must in fact accomplish not simply a herculean task, but instead achieve a near-impossible feat of persuading the Legislature to exercise its override authority, an extremely rare occurrence, precisely because of the grave political ramifications an override necessarily causes between the executive and legislative branches.”

Scott's decision to veto the $1.57 million for state firefighters, including employees who fight forest fires, was controversial. At the time, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam criticized Scott and pointed to raises that the governor approved for employees of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

"They're demonstrably underpaid relative to peers," Putnam said at the time of firefighters. "And I'm even more disappointed that it was not applied consistently. The helpful people who take your driver's license photo were allowed to receive a pay raise, and our forest firefighters who put their lives on the line were not."

But Scott said the pay raises for Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles employees were backed up by the needs of the agency.

"The Legislature did not put in the budget pay increases for state workers other than that one (for firefighters) and highway safety," he said at the time. "In highway safety's case, they're seeing a shortage of applicants, and so that was the rationale."

Tuesday's majority opinion upheld a decision by the state Public Employees Relations Commission, which dismissed an unfair labor charge in the case brought by the International Association of Firefighters Local S-20.


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