Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Fire, police unions use their clout in California's Capitol

Published: Monday, Aug. 27, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:16 pm

The police officers and firefighters we taxpayers employ to protect us are, sad to say, bullies in the political realm.

Their unions trade on their status as "first responders," their power to grant campaign endorsements and their ability to raise and disburse campaign contributions to demand extraordinary political favors.

A case in point was the incredibly generous retirement benefits that legislators and then-Gov. Gray Davis gave so-called "safety members" in 1999 – 90 percent of their salaries after 30 years, plus lifetime health care.

Local governments felt compelled to match the state's benefits, and soaring retiree costs now figure prominently in their fiscal woes, including three city bankruptcy filings.

The current legislative session demonstrates anew the fire and police unions' clout in an election year.

Take, for example, what happened when Speaker John A. Pérez proposed union-backed legislation to sweeten the pension pot for police and firefighters even more.

Assembly Bill 2451 doubles a 4 1/2-year statute of limitations on death benefits from some diseases presumed in law – another giveaway – to be job-related, such as cancer.

Even were they to die from those maladies many years after leaving public payrolls, their heirs would be entitled to benefits – paid by taxpayers – worth at least a quarter-million dollars.

It could cost California's taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. But only four legislators voted against it in the Assembly and just seven in the Senate.

AB 2451, however, is not the only example. Assembly Bill 2660 fared even better, winning unanimous votes in both legislative houses and a signature from Gov. Jerry Brown.

Sponsored by the Peace Officers Research Association of California and carried by Assemblyman Jose Solorio, D-Santa Ana, the measure allows police cars to have tinted side and rear windows, even though any other motorist would be ticketed for tinting and even though a legislative analysis said proponents could offer no evidence to justify an exemption.

Credit independent blogger Greg Lucas for uncovering that little jewel.

And then there's Assembly Bill 2389, which Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, is carrying for California Professional Firefighters.

It appears to be an even pettier bill, ginned up by the firefighters to harass those employed by private ambulance services under contract to local government by compelling them to place emblems on their uniforms and/or their vehicles saying who employs them.

It's part of an increasingly bitter battle between private ambulance firms and fire departments that have gone into the ambulance business to compensate for a decreasing number of fire calls. The bill has passed both houses. Its fate is up to Brown.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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