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Public Workers Protest Pension Overhaul Heading For House Vote

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Jessica Palombo

Outside the House Chambers, firefighters, police and paramedics gathered on Thursday to protest against the plan, headed for a House vote, which would gradually phase out the Florida pension fund.

It’s been two weeks since a sheriff’s deputy in Saint Lucie County was shot to death during a traffic stop. Thirty-five-year-old Gary Morales leaves behind a wife and two daughters under the age of 10. President of the state Fraternal Order of Police, James Preston, said, Morales’s death benefit will help care for his family for the rest of their lives.

“Under the current system, his wife will get a benefit because he lost his life in the line of duty, a small consolation for losing a loved one and a husband and a father,” Preston said. “Under the plans proposed here, she would get nothing. Now they tell you that, well, there’s the 401K plan, the deputy’s family would get what he has in that 401k plan, which, in most cases, if you have a 401k plan, you know what the stock market did to you in 2008, what it could do to you tomorrow.”

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jason Brodeur (R-Sanford) was amended Thursday morning to include a death benefit, but it would have an expiration date. Florida Professional Firefighters President Gary Rainey said, that’s unacceptable.

“To take that away from firefighters, that security, knowing that if you do have to make the ultimate sacrifice, that your family will suffer or may not have anything at the end, I think it’s a travesty, and it’s just wrong,” he said.

Rainey said, the bill is “a solution looking for a problem.” And as the measure heads for a House vote, he’s urging people to call their state representatives.

“Ask them to leave the retirement system alone. It’s working well. There’s plenty of other things to fix in Florida,” he said.

And Lisa Henning, with the Fraternal Order of Police, said, the proposed closure of the state pension fund could be particularly damaging in light of recent changes reducing the amount of federal benefits available for many public employees.

“Many first responders work for cities that have opted out of Social Security. So we would encourage everyone to be very careful because this is the only thing that these fine men and women, who risk their lives daily, will be receiving,” she said.

Rep. Dwayne Taylor (D-Daytona Beach) was a former firefighter and paramedic himself. On Thursday, he joined the public workers in opposition to the House pension bill.  

“Now I want you to know that I served 17 years on a police and fire pension fund board, and this is by far one of the healthiest plans around the country,” he said.

Taylor said, the bill is the result of philosophical bias against public workers, and it’s not a response to any real problem.

“And what the bill sponsor and those who are supporting this bill want to do is to scare our taxpayers into thinking that there’s a problem here with the pension,” he said. “There isn’t.”

He asked his fellow lawmakers in the House to stand up for government employees.

“I tell you it is absolutely wrong for us, right now, to create an enemy against these individuals,” he said.

The protesters say, they’re confident Brodeur’s pension plan will die in the Senate. They say they could potentially support a pension reform plan by Sen. Wilton Simpson (R-New Port Richey), which would leave the pension fund intact while offering an investment option. But their hope is, when session adjourns in May, that the Florida pension system is left exactly as it is now.