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New double-dipping rule could squeeze out Florida's Secretary of State Kurt Browning

Secretary of State Kurt Browning entered the deferred retirement plan in 2005.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning entered the deferred retirement plan in 2005.

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's new "double dipping" bill aimed at stopping government workers from drawing both a paycheck and a pension could force one of Gov. Charlie Crist's top aides to step aside prematurely.

The proposed law's timetables may have trapped the state's top elections official, Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who says he likely will have to leave office before the next statewide election in 2010.

Browning, 50, a former Pasco County supervisor of elections, received generally high marks for Florida's smooth 2008 presidential election, though he has faced numerous lawsuits over voter registration issues.

His problem is a last-minute amendment to the double-dipping bill in the Senate on Friday that sought to narrow the loophole by requiring retirees to wait six months before returning to their old jobs.

The proposed law, which cleared the Legislature and Crist is expected to sign, would take effect July 1, 2010.

When Browning entered the deferred retirement option or DROP program in August 2005, he set his retirement date at July 31, 2010 — meaning the six-month hiatus period would force him to sit out the 2010 election.

"It's not fair to the state of Florida for me to sit out for six months and have the governor come back in and appoint me. It isn't fair," Browning said. "This certainly impacts my future."

Crist might not be around to do that. He's thinking of running for the U.S. Senate, so it's possible there will be a new governor in 2010, who likely would pick a new secretary of state.

Browning said that he's not seeking special favors and that he's willing to forgo collecting his monthly pension benefits until he leaves state employment. His best hope is that the Legislature would amend the law in the next regular session in the spring of 2010.

"I don't want my retirement benefits until I retire," he said. "I don't want a 'Kurt Browning Relief Act.' "

If the current law were not changed, Browning said, he likely would have sought to take a 30-day hiatus, assuming the governor would reappoint him, before returning to work. But he also is willing to delay acceptance of his lump-sum payout and retirement benefits until his career is over, and wants the state to put his earnings in a noninterest bearing account.

"Just let me keep working. That's all I want to do," Browning said.

The Division of Retirement said Browning is entitled to a lump-sum retirement payment of $455,000.

Browning said he agrees that elected officials have abused the system by "retiring," and then returning to their old jobs 30 days later, as the current law allows. But he said the state also should find a way for talented and dedicated employees to work as long as they want.

The legislators who championed tightening the double-dipping law represent Browning's home county of Pasco: Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, and Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

"Kurt is a great friend of mine. He's a buddy," Fasano said. "But you have to draw the line somewhere. If you keep putting in a provision to help somebody, the legislation is all for naught."

Fasano said Browning could move up his retirement date so it is before July 1, 2010, when the new law will be effective. But Browning said he was troubled that doing so would make it appear he was trying to "game the system" by evading a law that his own boss, Gov. Crist, has said is necessary.

Browning began working in the Pasco elections office when he was 17. He had 31 years of government employment before Crist appointed him secretary of state.

When he entered the DROP program, he had no way of knowing Crist would recruit him to run the state's elections operations.

Fasano's original bill (SB 1182) set the effective date of the new law at Jan. 1, 2010. But senators agreed to extend the date by six months, to July 1, 2010, on an amendment sought by an opponent of the bill, Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

New double-dipping rule could squeeze out Florida's Secretary of State Kurt Browning 05/04/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 9, 2009 11:43am]
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