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Advocates On Law Enforcement Spousal Survivor Benefits Bill: 'We’ll Be Back Next Year'

Red Huber, Pool
Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings (left) escorts Deputy Jonathan Scott Pine's widow, Bridget, into First Baptist Church of Orlando, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, for the funeral service.

The names of several Florida law enforcement officers who died while on duty are expected to be etched into a Washington D.C. Memorial next week, after remembrance ceremonies were recently held at the state Capitol. Those honored include a former Sheriff’s deputy, whose family has been awaiting the passage of a bill that would have helped them out financially, but died during the last days of session.

Hundreds of law enforcement officers and families who lost their loved ones last year in the line of duty converged on the state capitol Monday. That includes the family of former Orange County Sheriff’s deputy Jonathan Scott Pine, who left behind a wife and three kids.

“Haley, Ryker, and Maddox and his wife Bridget—and what happened was because he had chosen the investment plan, his family ended up getting just a small death benefit and few months of what was left in that investment plan,” explained Sen. Darren Soto (D-Orlando).

Florida’s Retirement System has two main options: the pension plan and the investment plan, a 401-K style option. The pension plan—the most popular retirement option—provides a survivor benefit for the spouses of those who died in the line of duty, about half of the person’s monthly salary. But, the investment plan has no such option for the spouse, other than the rest of the account balance.

And, Bridget Pine says it’s not enough to take care of her family.

“These changes need to be made, so we can take care of our family, so I can survive and put food on the table for these three children, put gas in our car to drive them back and forth to school,” she said, during a press conference months ago.

A bill by Sen. Jeremy Ring (D-Margate) aimed to change all that. He says the bill made two primary changes to Florida’s Retirement System.

“This bill increases the monthly survivor benefits available to spouses and children of FRS [Florida’s Retirement System] pension plan members, and the special risk class when killed in the line of duty from 50 percent of the member’s monthly salary at the time of death to 100 percent of the member’s monthly salary at the time of death,” said Ring, on the Senate floor last week.

And, he says it made another change that would create a new surviving benefits program—one that would have positively impacted the Pine family.

“Second, this 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 survivor benefits program in lieu of receiving normal retirement benefits under the FRS investment plan,” he added.

But, amid a budget impasse between the House and Senate over health care funding, the measure died. The House never passed the bill during this year’s legislative session. It did pass the Senate, but only after the House adjourned three days early. That upset Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa).

“We had unfinished business that we could have taken care of,” said Joyner. “You heard the bill about the slain law enforcement officer whose spouse is without adequate funds to take care of her family, and her husband died in the line of duty. I mean there were just some important issues that we should have taken care of.”

Sen. Soto (D-Orlando), who had made this a priority bill, was also disappointed.

“And, I cannot believe we have to go back to our district for one more year for a hero, someone who we remember in Orlando for protecting us, someone who symbolizes all that’s great among law enforcement because we have a chamber who is getting caught up in politics,” said Soto.

Still, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings says he’s not giving up the fight for the Pine family and other families who are affected by this surviving benefits issue.

“It’s about taking care of the families, who have been the victims of death in a felonious way,” said Demings. “We certainly will be back supporting the spouses and others that have lost loved ones with new legislation next year.”

And, Sen. Ring has promised to revisit the issue again next year.

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

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.