Death Benefits Bill Inspired By Fallen Deputy May Be Causing Rift Between House, Senate

Feb 15, 2016

Former Orange County sheriff's deputy Scott Pine
Credit deputyscottpine.com

A bill stemming from the death of a fallen sheriff’s deputy is putting the House and Senate at odds over a pension reform proposal.

At a memorial honoring the one year anniversary of the death of her husband—Orange County Deputy Scott Pine—a tearful Bridget Pine spoke about how hard it’s been since then.

“He was our protector, and provided strength and guidance every day,” said Pine. “He kept our family bonded tightly together. Now, our family has fallen hopelessly apart. This past year has been a never ending nightmare. Every day without him brings new challenges.”

That was back in February of 2015. Now, another year has passed by, and Bridget Pine says she and her 3 kids are still without a proper death benefit, following Scott Pine’s 2014 death. The Orange County Deputy was shot and killed, while investigating a string of burglaries.

Legislation to help the surviving spouses of law enforcement died last year amid a budget impasse between the House and Senate. It’s back again this year in the House as well as the Senate.

Last week, the Senate—at the direction of Senate President Andy Gardiner (R-Orlando)—quickly took up the measure to make sure it passed early in the Session.

“You know, there were a lot of casualties last year and this was one of the bills that was ready to go,” said Gardiner, at the time. “This is an important issue, not just for law enforcement and those who risk their lives every day for us, but it’s an important to us in Orange County and Central Florida. So, thank for giving us this opportunity.”

The bill’s sponsor is Sen. Jeremy Ring (D-Margate), who says it’s for all first responders who perished in the line of duty, including Deputy Pine and survivors like his wife Bridget.

He says the measure makes two changes to the Florida Retirement System.

It has two main options: the traditional and most popular option known as the pension plan and the 401K style investment plan. Today, the pension plan provides a survivor benefit for the spouses of those who died in the line of duty—about half of the person’s monthly salary. Ring’s bill changes that to allowing the spouse to receive the person’s full salary.

“Second, the bill permits the surviving spouse or children of an investment plan member in the special risk class when killed in the line of duty to opt into the FRS investment plan Survivors Benefits Program in lieu of receiving normal retirement benefits under the FRS investment plan,” said Ring.

That part of the bill would apply to the family of Deputy Pine, who had the investment plan. Today, that plan does not include a death benefit, other than the rest of the account balance.

And, Sen. Darren Soto (D-Kissimmee) praised Ring’s bill.

“The Pine family was left with next to nothing when if he had the other—the defined benefit—it would have been a robust benefit plan to help his wife and his three children,” said Soto. “So, I’m glad that this year we’re going to get it done, since last year, it was quite unfortunate that this got left on the table.”

Senator Ring too felt that way, and he says he hopes the bill will never be used as a negotiating tool by the House again.

“This is a bill that I hope never has to be used, other than clearly for Pine family and we thank them for being here today,” said Ring. “I don’t believe that we should ever be negotiating on the bodies of our dead first responders. So, as we send this bill over to the House today, I’d like to be strong as a Senate that the House knows that we do a lot of negotiating back and forth and that’s part of the process. But, we don’t always have to do that. Sometimes, we can just do what’s right.”

And, before unanimously passing the bill, all 40 Senators agreed to stand with Senator Ring by co-sponsoring the measure.

And, Senate President Gardiner says while he’s open to discussing more with the House on different pension efforts, he doesn’t think the death benefits provision should be included in the House bill.

“I think that there’s been some concern that it may become a vehicle for some other things, some FRS reforms, and some things that have floated around for awhile,” said Gardiner. “Those are all legitimate issues, but for the family that was here today, we just think it should be clean. We’ll have those debates on other issues. And, so I know the family was going over to visit with some House members, and I hope that that’s the message is: let’s do this, and let’s get it done for the family and not make it a vehicle for other things.”

But, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli had a different view on the issue that he’s made one of his top priorities. He says the House had been working with Ring on pension reform.

“Well, I don’t know exactly what Senator Ring had to say,” he said. “But, I know that we have a pension bill that has a multitude of different pieces in it that regard pension and I do know that he has been over and he has talked to my Chief of Staff Kathy Mears about this very issue. So, if he’s railing against us for having it in our package, and he came over and talked to her about seeing what they could do over there with different parts of our package, then I think he’s probably contradicting what he originally said. But, having said that, I don’t know what he said over there on the floor.”

Still, Crisafulli says he continues to remain hopeful the Senate will accept the House Pension Reform package, which includes the death benefit.

It also includes a controversial provision that changes the default from the traditional pension plan to the investment plan for new hires. Opponents say the pension plan is the more secure retirement option.

Meanwhile, the House package is slated for its first and last official hearing in the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday. If it passes there, it heads to the floor.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.