Aug. 08--Do legislators read or understand the impact of the bills they vote on? Do they care about the fiscal health of the communities they represent? If they do, how can they overwhelmingly approve a bill that would impose huge costs on both the state and struggling local governments? That's what Assembly Bill 2451 would do.
Authored by Assembly Speaker John A. Perez and sponsored by the California Professional Firefighters and the California Highway Patrol, the bill removes the statute of limitations for job-related survivor death benefits for peace officers and firefighters. No one objects to survivors receiving death benefits when a police officer or firefighter is killed in the line of duty. That's not what this measure does.
Here's how it would work:
Firefighter Jones or police Officer Smith retires in 2012 at age 53. Twenty-five years later, Smith or Jones die of a heart attack. Although there is a presumption in current law that heart ailments in firefighters and cops are job-related, there had been no evidence of a heart condition for either retiree before the fatal attack. Neither Jones nor Smith filed workers' compensation claims. Neither retired on disability. Their deaths occurred well beyond the 4 1/2-years-after-injury statute of limitations that governs job-related death benefit eligibility today.
Nonetheless, under this bill their survivors could claim a death benefit worth a quarter of a million dollars at minimum.
This benefit would cover not just current firefighters, police officers, prison guards and other public safety workers but retirees as well. So, on the day AB 2451 becomes law, when any ex-firefighter dies of a heart attack at age 80 or cancer at age 90, his widow or children, or other relatives -- the list of eligible survivors is extensive -- becomes eligible for a benefit typically valued at between $250,000 and $300,000.
It goes even further. If there are no survivors, the state can claim the benefit, with the money to be deposited into the uninsured employer benefit fund.
Proponents argue this bill would help provide for a widow whose firefighter or police officer spouse dies prematurely of cancer six years after filing a workers' compensation claim, just a little beyond the current 4 1/2-year statute of limitations for a death benefit. Supporters insist the widow should not lose the death benefit because modern medicine allowed her husband to linger beyond the statute of limitations.
But this bill goes well beyond that heart-tugging scenario. Its practical effect is to give every police officer, every firefighter, every prison guard or park ranger a taxpayer-funded life insurance policy. To pay for that extraordinary benefit, services will have to be cut. In some jurisdictions, even police and firefighters could be laid off to pay for it.
In a year in which three California cities have already filed for bankruptcy protection and more are at risk of insolvency, when the governor is begging voters to approve a tax increase and seriously contemplating cutting the school year, this bill represents a gross overreach by the state's most powerful unions.
Despite pleas from local officials worried about the future solvency of their cities and counties, the bill zipped out of the Assembly on a 69-4 vote. It passed out of the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee 5-0. It was a bipartisan outrage. Republicans and Democrats alike voted for this bill.
Incredibly, it was never even heard in the fiscal committees of either house, so its fiscal implications were never fully vetted. There is only this explicit one-line warning in the Assembly Insurance Committee analysis. "Fiscal effect: Undetermined but likely major new obligations, potentially in the hundreds of millions of dollars to both state and local governments as a result of the substantial increase in the number of peace officers and firefighters who would now be eligible for a death benefit."
Now that the bill is awaiting a final vote on the Senate floor, a spokesman for Speaker Perez says his office is working with opponents on possible amendments. It's stunning that those conversations are taking place at this late date and that a bill this fiscally irresponsible has gotten this far.
(c)2012 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)
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