Editorial: Can local coffers pay for benefits boost?

Published: Friday, May. 10, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 14A

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez has reintroduced a pared-down version of a bill that Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed last year that would expand the statute of limitations for death benefits for police and firefighters injured in the line of duty. Even in its more modest incarnation, cities and counties oppose the measure. They fear it will impose unspecified additional costs on local governments that could add up to hundreds of millions of dollars. Despite those concerns, the speaker's Assembly Bill 1373 went flying out of the Assembly earlier this month on a 60 to 12 vote.

Thanks to a tax increase and draconian cuts to safety net programs, the budget picture for state and local governments looks slightly better this year than it has in the recent past. Still, the speaker's new bill – another giveaway to politically powerful firefighter and police unions – is as unnecessary and nearly as irresponsible as it was last year. Assembly members who should know better – such as former Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson and former Rancho Cordova City Councilman Ken Cooley, both Democrats – voted for the bill. So did many Republicans who have previously served in local governments.

As former supervisors and city elected leaders, these lawmakers understand – or should understand – just how precarious local government finances are. They also know that, while police, firefighters and prison guards take daily risks to ensure public safety, they also enjoy generous health, retirement and death benefits now.

Public safety workers are the only public employees for whom certain illnesses – among them cancer, tuberculosis and blood-borne infections – are presumed to be work-related. Firefighter and police officers who contract such illnesses are almost automatically made eligible for workers' compensation benefits.

Under current law, if the public safety worker sickened or injured in the line of duty dies within 240 weeks or almost five years after the injury or onset of illness, their survivors are eligible for a death benefit worth more than $300,000 in some case.

As currently drafted, the speaker's bill would extend that statute of limitations to an as yet unspecified time period. Union representatives are talking to local governments to try to pick a new time frame that strikes a balance between fairness to surviving dependents and the public agencies struggling to meet already heavy financial obligations.

In arguing for this bill, firefighters point to those rare instances when a firefighter suffering from cancer dies just a day or week beyond the 240 week cutoff period for survivor benefits.

But those anecdotes suggest falsely that the families of deceased firefighters and police officers are left destitute in these situations. That is hardly the case. Surviving spouses are eligible for generous lifetime health and retirement benefits. Surviving children are entitled to college tuition help. If the safety worker who died retired on disability, half the pension his widow collects comes tax-free.

The additional $300,000 lump-sum death benefit that Speaker Pérez seeks with his bill is excessive. It is especially so at a time when cities and counties are struggling to figure out how to pay for unfunded liabilities for pensions and health care – benefits that public employee unions secured through past lobbying campaigns like the one they are engaged in now.

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