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Pension Reform Fight Ends With House, Senate Agreeing To Send Gov. Scott Death Benefits Bill

MGN Online

A bill allowing the surviving spouses of first responders to receive proper death benefits is now headed to Governor Rick Scott. This could mark the end of a contentious debate over pension reform this year.

Whether you’re talking about the death benefits bill or the controversial House Pension Reform Package, both deal with making changes to the retirement options for state workers within Florida’s Retirement System.

The more popular option is the traditional pension plan and the other is the 401K-style investment plan. Today, those in killed in the line of duty and are in the investment plan don’t receive much of a death benefit, as opposed to those in the pension plan.

That’s what Bridget Pine, widow of Orange County Deputy Scott Pine, says she found out when he was killed in the line of duty in 2014. And, Sen. Jeremy Ring (D-Margate) tried to do something about it.

His bill failed to pass last year amid a budget impasse between the House and Senate. So, he tried again this year. But, the House this year included the death benefits provision in its pension reform bill.

Still, that didn’t deter the Senate, which unanimously passed Ring’s standalone bill. But, before receiving Senate approval, Ring wasn’t sure the House would take up his bill, and he asked the Senate to help him send a message.

“I hope we can make a very strong showing on this bill as it goes over to our friends on the other side,” he said, about a month ago. ”So, I’m going to ask, Mr. President, if others can cosponsor this bill only for the purpose of not just supporting the Pine family and others, first responders, but to send a message to the House that we don’t want to negotiate when it comes to death benefits of those first responders that have been killed in the line of duty.”

Two weeks later, though, the House passed its version of a pension reform package. It included a controversial provision changing the default retirement option for newly hired employees to the investment plan—a priority for House Speaker Steve Crisafulli.

It was uncertain which chamber would take up the opposing chamber’s proposal.

And, last week, Crisafulli remained optimistic about what could happen in the last week of session.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said, speaking to reporters. “I’m mean certainly, you know, their bill is far different than ours. Ours is a combination of a multitude of issues with regard to pension, but there’s a week left and a lot of things can still take place, so…”

But, Tuesday, the House took the first steps in discussing the Senate’s standalone bill dealing with death benefits.

And, Rep. Rene Plasencia (R-Orlando) says he’s just glad for the Pine family, who’d called him with the good news.

“Members, when I got the phone call, I think it was Tuesday morning from Bridget Pine, I didn’t know what the call was about,” he said. “We had thought this bill was dead. It was stuck up in the Senate and we weren’t sure what was going to happen. Knowing the history of pension bills, honestly we thought this bill was dead. But, it was truly an act of God and a blessing that we have a Speaker in our House who would not let this issue die.”

Rep. Matt Caldwell (R-North Fort Myers), who authored the House’s pension reform package, says the Senate bill applies retroactively to 2002, when the investment plan began.

“1) It increases the monthly survivor benefit for the spouse and children of pension plan members in the special risk class who are killed in the line of duty from 50 to 100 percent of the member’s monthly salary at the time of death,” he said. “2) It provides the spouse or children of investment plan members in the special risk class who are killed in the line of duty the same surviving benefits provided to the special risk members in the pension plan in the first option, including the new increased benefit.”

It also provides survivor benefits for a child until the age of 25, instead of 18, if the child is unmarried and a full-time student.

And, after a question from Rep. John Tobia (R-Melbourne Beach), Caldwell confirmed he liked the House’s version better.

“So, in an abundance of clarity, the Senate version provides less benefits to state workers who tragically lose a spouse, than the House version. Is that correct,” Tobia asked.

“I believe our bill provided a better benefit to our state employees,” he replied.

Still, many Republicans and Democrats praised the measure, like Rep. Dwayne Taylor (D-Daytona Beach)—a former firefighter and paramedic.

“This is the most important pension bill that we have passed in several years,” he said. “For those police officers and firefighters—for whatever reason—select the investment plan, they now get death benefits. The families don’t have to figure out how they’re going to live without their mother or father because it is important. They are risking their lives each and every day.”

Rep. Doug Broxson (R-Gulf Breeze) says as the son of a former Sheriff, he understands the significance of this bill.

“He was killed in 1958 when he was Sheriff of Santa Rosa County,” he said. “I was nine-years-old. I remember for the next 10 years how my family lived in poverty because there were no provisions for Sheriffs during that time, and I’m so proud today that we’re standing for all those folks both living and dead that now can say that Florida is doing the right thing, we’re protecting those families, and telling them how much we appreciate the work they did.”

And, the measure passed the House Wednesday 116 to 1 with Tobia as the lone dissenting vote. The bill now heads to the Governor’s desk.

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.