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Officers win pension support

Gov. Bush backs a plan to restore benefits taken from law enforcement officers.

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- The men and women carrying guns left the Capitol Wednesday with broad smiles.

Gov. Jeb Bush and legislative leaders support a plan to restore pension benefits taken from the state's 54,000 law enforcement officers and firefighters when the state pension plan ran into trouble 22 years ago.

The support for law enforcement officers came after more than 400 uniformed, gun-toting officers filled the room for a meeting of the State Board of Administration to discuss legislative proposals for using surplus pension money. The board consists of Gov. Jeb Bush, Comptroller Bob Milligan and Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson.

The state pension fund has a fair market value of $103-billion with current liabilities of about $71-billion. Its assets are given an actual value of about $84-billion, a situation that creates a surplus of around $13-billion.

Senate President Toni Jennings wants to use some of the surplus to restore pension benefits for high-risk officers, improve benefits to all 600,000 members of the retirement system and reduce local government contributions to the pension system.

Bush called Wednesday's meeting of the board that oversees the pension fund to take a look at the Senate proposal and other suggestions for using surplus contributions to the fund.

They heard experts offer an analysis of the need for reserves in a volatile economy and pleas from those who want to make changes. Bush and Milligan then voted to establish a flexible reserve fund that would keep the pension fund solvent in adverse times and allow between $566-million and $973-million to be allocated by legislators for improvements this year.

That's enough to pay for restoration of $690-million in law enforcement benefits sought by the officers who came to Tallahassee.

Nelson voted against the proposal, but did say he favors restoring the "borrowed" pension benefits taken from law enforcement officers in 1978. Nelson said he'd like to take more time before making a decision.

After the vote, House Speaker John Thrasher and other lawmakers joined law enforcement officials for a news conference and announced support for restoring the benefit.

But Thrasher said the House will not consider other pension plan improvements that the Senate wants. Jennings wants to allow vesting after five years instead of 10 and allow pensions to be based on the best three years of pay instead of the best five years.

Bush said he doesn't believe the additional benefits should be given this year because it would carry "an extraordinary price tag."

Legislators reduced the special risk pensions for law enforcement officers from 3 percent to 2 percent between 1978 and 1992 to cover the costs of taking all of the state's teachers into the state retirement system.

"The state promised us a decent retirement," said Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary. "In 1978 that promise was broken. You were not responsible for it, but you can fix it."

"It was stolen from us," Police Benevolent Association lobbyist David Murrell said. "It would be prudent as your father would say, governor, to restore it."

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