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As session slips away, Florida correctional officers argue for 'equal pay'

Lizbeth Benacquisto is running for Congress.

Lizbeth Benacquisto is running for Congress.

The 2014 legislative session is at the point when people do whatever they can to call attention to what appear to be lost causes.

Frustrated state correctional officers, along with Teamsters Union representatives, held a news conference and called on lawmakers Tuesday to raise their pay to levels equal with other state law enforcement officers such as state troopers, FDLE agents and game wardens. That would cost about $30 million, Teamsters say, and it's affordable in a year when the state has a projected $1 billion surplus.

Teamsters agent Les Cantrell said Gov. Rick Scott has not done enough to help the officers. "We have not seen the support from him," said Cantrell, whose union replaced the Florida Police Benevolent Association as a bargaining agent for guards. "I don't get the message from the governor that he is looking out for (them)."

Cantrell said the typical correctional officer is 42 years old with a spouse and children. "These are people with families. They cannot go on making what they're making and survive," he said. Standing behind him, a half-dozen correctional officers wore black and yellow T-shirts that said: "Equal pay for equal risk."

Corrections Sgt. Thomas Johnson, 39, has worked for the state for 13 years and is paid $36,000 a year at Marion Correctional in Ocala, where he said morale suffers because of low pay, and that turnover remains rampant as officers find better-paying jobs at county jails. Because staff vacancies create huge gaps in security, Johnson said he and others volunteer to work 12-hour shifts, on occasion for four and five consecutive days.

"The fatigue factor starts to set in. Are you at the same level of alertness? Absolutely not," Johnson said.

The Teamsters' chief lobbyist, Ron Silver, who served three decades as a Democratic legislator, called the Legislature's treatment of correctional officers "intolerable, unjust and it might even be criminal."

Rubio dismisses Bush influence

Sen. Marco Rubio in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper on Tuesday said what Rubio's team has been spreading: He won't base his presidential decision on Jeb Bush.

"In my mind when people decide to run for an office of that magnitude, they do so under their own criteria, not what someone else is going to do," Rubio said. "And I'd imagine Jeb would tell you the same thing. His decision, and the decision of many other people who are being speculated about, is not going to be about whether someone else is going to run or not."

Noting he has "tremendous admiration for Jeb Bush," Rubio told CNN: "I don't think if I decide to run it would be a reflection on him, or if he were to run, it would be a reflection on me."

Panuccio closer to confirmation

The man who presided over the troubled launch of Florida's $63 million CONNECT unemployment system is just one step from getting confirmed so he can keep his $141,000 job as the executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

The Senate's Ethics and Elections Committee on Monday recommended the confirmation of Jesse Panuccio 11-1, the fourth and last committee the 33-year-old former general counsel for Gov. Rick Scott needed to clear.

Next up is a vote by the 40-member Senate.

"I think he's a class act," Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon said after his vote. "He's convinced a lot of us of that."

Huckabee backs Benacquisto

Mike Huckabee on Monday endorsed Lizbeth Benacquisto in Florida's 19th Congressional District, joining Sarah Palin as the second nationally known Republican to get behind her with the April 22 primary approaching.

"You can't argue with Lizbeth's proven conservative credentials," Huckabee wrote on Facebook.

Michael Van Sickler and Alex Leary contributed.

As session slips away, Florida correctional officers argue for 'equal pay' 04/08/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 8, 2014 8:10pm]
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