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The Associated Press March 9, 2011, 5:11PM ET

Okla. firefighters oppose proposed pension changes

Hundreds of Oklahoma firefighters filed into the state Capitol Wednesday to express opposition to legislation they said would gut firefighter pension benefits and the ability of retired firefighters to receive cost-of-living adjustments.

About 400 firefighters from across the state met with members of the House and Senate in Capitol hallways and in lawmakers' offices following a rally where they said the firefighters' pension bill is part of a legislative trend to take away the benefits and rights of public employees.

In addition to proposed changes to firefighter pensions, state lawmakers are considering legislation to alter other pension plans and repeal the collective bargaining rights for municipal workers in Oklahoma's 13 largest cities.

"We're concerned about our pension and benefits and just the tone of the Legislature this session," said Roy L. "Sandy" McGhee III, vice president of the International Association of Firefighters. "Public employees seem to be the scapegoat for everything that's wrong with state and local government. These are working people. They strapped on their boots and they came up. That's what they do every day."

Firefighters said they oppose measures that would alter the Oklahoma Firefighters Pension and Retirement System and reduce benefit levels, increase the years of service for normal retirement, raise employee contributions for newly hired firefighters and make it harder for retirees to receive a COLA.

"What I've worked 20 years to protect they're trying to take away with a stroke of a pen," said firefighter Rick Horner of the Oklahoma City Fire Department. As he spoke, a fire engine sounded its horn and siren and circled the Capitol lawn where the rally was held.

"I'm just concerned about the changes they're trying to make," said Ricky Dunn, a firefighter with the Chickasha department.

Republican legislative leaders have said changes need to be made to public pensions for teachers, public safety workers and other state employees because of their collective $16.5 billion unfunded liability. But Brian Foughty, vice president of the Professional Firefighters of Oklahoma, said any problems are the result of funding issues, not the benefits received by retired firefighters.

"We don't want changes," Foughty said. "It's not broke. Leave it alone."

Rep. Eric Proctor, D-Tulsa, one of several state lawmakers who appeared at the rally, said it is unfair for lawmakers to expect firefighters to risk their health and safety, but be unwilling to support them with benefits and pensions.

"It's hypocritical. It's wrong. It's an immoral stance," Proctor said as firefighters cheered and applauded.

"What you do is important," said Rep. Don Armes, R-Faxon. "If we start messing with your retirement, who's going to be there? We have to try to keep what you've accumulated alone."

Bert Norton, president of the Oklahoma State Firefighters Association, said firefighters support a measure overwhelmingly passed by the House on Wednesday that creates a task force to study the state's pension systems. Norton said they also support bills to repeal tax credits that reduce the state's ability to support its public employee pensions.

Following the rally, more than a dozen firefighters filled the office of the pension bill's author, Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa.

"This is hugely important to you all," McCullough said, acknowledging the firefighters' concerns. But he added that nationally, public pension systems are being scrutinized.

"Public pensions are a big deal right now," he said. "I have tried to be as open and as transparent and as fair as I can be."

He told firefighters that his bill, approved last month by the House Economic Development, Tourism and Financial Services Committee, still does not have a Senate author and he does not know if it will be heard on the House floor.

"It doesn't have much of a chance of moving forward," he said.

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