By Michael Peltier
TALLAHASSEE, Fla (Reuters) - To patch a $4 billion budget hole, more than 1,600 Florida state government employees were laid off as of Friday, and another 562,000 began paying into their pension plans for the first time in 37 years.
The 1,600 are a very small fraction of the state's overall government workforce, but additional layoffs and cuts are expected as state agencies and local governments respond to a series of belt-tightening measures approved by lawmakers at the request of Republican Governor Rick Scott.
State agency cuts have been well-publicized. But austerity measures, combined with agency realignments and Scott's campaign promises to reduce corporate income and property taxes, will translate into pink slips for some local government employees as well.
The South Florida Water Management District, which oversees flood control and Everglades restoration, has offered 123 employees severance packages as part of an effort to trim $252 million from the agency's $1.1 billion annual budget.
The agency is expected to lay off 100 more in the next several weeks in response to a legislative decision to cut tax levels for all water management agencies, whose budgets have already been depleted by falling property values.
"The (buyout) was the first step toward streamlining operations and achieving staffing levels that correspond with agency core functions," spokesman Gabe Margasak said in an email. "The new staffing levels for the agency have not yet been finalized but will be in place effective August 17."
Late Thursday, a Tallahassee judge rejected a request by the state's largest teachers union to temporarily bar the state from collecting 3 percent of state employees' wages for their retirement funds. The state has picked up the tab for all pension contributions since 1974.
The Florida Education Association had requested an injunction while it proceeds with a lawsuit over the new law, which union representatives say breaks earlier contracts and amounts to a 3 percent pay cut for teachers, many of whom have not had a pay raise in several years.
The group is representing nearly 700,000 active and retired state and local employees who collect pensions from the Florida Retirement System.
"They created a budget deficit by giving tax breaks to corporate special interests and then tried to solve their problem on the backs of Florida's working families," said union president Andy Ford following the ruling.
State officials are looking for further ways to curb costs. Lawmakers took the politically sensitive step of setting up a task force to look at whether the state's various law enforcement agencies could combine training, logistics and other services to reduce duplication.
"This task force provides an opportunity to chart a path for common sense and cost-effective state law enforcement," Scott wrote in a letter to law enforcement groups this week.
The Florida Sheriffs Association will participate in the task force discussions and acknowledges there could be some duplication in efforts across the state, executive director Steve Casey said on Friday.
But the group will oppose efficiencies that take any powers from sheriffs or add responsibilities without additional resources, he said.
"It's no secret that the sheriffs have not supported the concept of a state police in Florida," he said.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)