Editorial: Why did they vote for the death-benefits giveaway?

Published: Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012 - 7:43 am

Sacramento Assemblyman Roger Dickinson is a reliable pro-labor vote.

So it was no surprise that he voted for Assembly Bill 2451, Speaker John A. Pérez's expensive death-benefits giveaway to powerful police and firefighter unions. The bill blows the lid off the statute of limitations on service-related death benefits. If it passed, it wouldn't matter if the firefighter, police officer or prison guard died of heart disease or cancer at age 90 – 40 years after he had retired. A widow or other surviving relative – a brother-in-law qualifies – could claim a death benefit worth a quarter of a million dollars at minimum.

When asked why he voted for the bill, Dickinson emailed an explanation.

"While the bill would mean that in some cases, benefits would have to be paid to survivors which would not occur under current law," Dickinson wrote, "that seems appropriate to me if the ultimate cause of death is service-related."

Dickinson's email ignores the cost that AB 2451 imposes. The Assembly committee analysis says that the bill's fiscal impact is "undetermined, but … potentially in the hundreds of millions of dollars."

Sixty-nine members of the Assembly, most of them Democrats, voted to saddle the public with this new obligation. Despite a Republican analysis that pointed out the bill "will place a new and expensive unfunded mandate on local governments at a time when they are laying off peace officers and firefighters," most Republicans, including the GOP Assembly leader Connie Conway of Visalia, voted for it, too.

First-term Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, one of only four legislators, all Republicans, who voted "no," says she opposes the presumptions in current law that cancer, heart disease and a host of other illnesses if suffered by police and firefighters are work-related. This bill allows those presumptions to extend well beyond a public safety officer's retirement, imposing new burdens on public employers and taxpayers.

Assemblyman Allan Mansoor of Costa Mesa was facing a well-funded primary challenge when he voted "no" on the Pérez giveaway. "I saw the huge increase in benefits and I said there is no way we can afford this at this time."

Assemblyman Chris Norby of Fullerton, another "no" vote, worried "that it was going to impose tremendous cost on state and local governments."

Assemblyman Tim Donnelly of Twin Peaks cast the final "no" vote. "We are still waiting on a real pension reform proposal but they have time to propose extending benefits," he fumed. "This is insane."

Cities and counties are struggling to balance budgets, even laying off police officers and closing fire stations to do so. Yet the Pérez measure sits on the Senate floor just one vote from the governor's desk, a sign of the disconnect between California's elected representatives and the public. Why did so few vote against this bad bill?

"Unions have a lot of power in the building," Assemblywoman Grove explained. "It takes a lot of guts to vote against unions."

And not many legislators have the guts to buck the unions who could end their political careers, certainly not Sacramento's Roger Dickinson, to name one.

Late Friday, the Speaker's office said Pérez was amending his bill to narrow its scope. The amendments will be in print Monday. We look forward to seeing them.

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