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Officers are denied vote on pensions

Law enforcement officers turn up em masse to back a restoration of benefits, but a key lawmaker refuses to budge without more information.

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- The room was filled with more than 300 armed law enforcement officers, but House Appropriations Chairman Ken Pruitt didn't flinch Tuesday as he refused to take a vote on a bill supported by all of the officers.

Sheriff's deputies, police officers and firefighters from every corner of the state drove to Tallahassee at their own time and expense to push for a bill they think would right an injustice done by legislators in the late 1970s.

It was a rare moment of unity as the Police Benevolent Association, the Florida Sheriffs Association and other police unions -- traditional enemies on issues relating to personnel -- joined forces to support a bill that would increase retirement benefits for law enforcement officers who are members of the state retirement system.

Officers assigned to the "special risk" category for retirement have pensions that accrue at 3 percent a year. But the state dropped that percentage to 2 percent a year between 1978 and 1992 to help pay the costs of putting teachers into the state retirement system.

The 3 percent benefit was restored in 1992, but nothing was done to replace the 1 percent missing from 1978 to 1992.

Rep. Heather Fiorentino, R-New Port Richey, has offered a bill that would restore the benefit for the missed years at a cost of $800-million to $1.2-billion, depending on whether benefits are restored to officers who have retired. The measure also is in the Senate's budget.

Pruitt took statements from Bay County Sheriff Guy Tunnell, president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, and others who traveled from out of town to speak. He refused to hear the bill until the state Board of Administration reports on the actuarial soundness of the proposal.

Pruitt said he was acting because of concerns raised by Gov. Jeb Bush, Comptroller Bob Milligan and Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson, who sit as the state board that governs the way Florida handles its retirement funds.

"These are people who have through personal sacrifice and financial sacrifice paid for that benefit and are owed that benefit," Tunnell said.

The officers did not leave happy.

"We're voters too," Tunnell said as he left the hearing.

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