Sen. Darrell Steinberg, the president pro tem of the California Senate, says he's still studying Assembly Bill 2451, Speaker John A. Pérez's multimillion-dollar benefit giveaway to powerful police and firefighter unions.
Mr. Steinberg, you're a little late. The bill, which we also wrote about last week, may be the most irresponsible measure of the current session, but it awaits final action on the Senate floor. Despite its high cost, there still are no plans to hold a hearing on this bill in a Senate fiscal committee.
Why not? A spokesman for Pérez says amendments are being prepared to soften its financial impact. Yet for now, it remains a fiscal train wreck. Lobbyists for cities and counties say there are no changes contemplated that could eliminate the considerable economic hardships this bill places on already struggling local governments.
The measure, pushed by public safety employee unions, eliminates the 4½-year statute of limitations on work-related death benefits for peace officers and firefighters who die of diseases presumed by law to be job-related, including cancer and heart attacks. That would allow a widow, child, grandchild or other relatives of a firefighter, prison guard or other peace officer to file for death benefits worth a quarter-million dollars at minimum, even if their loved one passed away from cancer a decade or two after leaving public service.
If there were no survivors, the state could file for that benefit, with the money to be placed in the uninsured employer benefit fund. The age of the deceased police officer or firefighter would not matter. Nor would it matter how long they may have been retired before they died or whether they had even filed a workers' compensation claim.
This extraordinary benefit typically worth $250,000 to $300,000 creates an open-ended liability that local government representatives and the Assembly Insurance Committee analysis say is likely to cost state and local governments hundreds of millions of dollars.
Considering the fiscal pain the bill would inflict on cities and counties, it's both shocking and disheartening that only four legislators voted against the bill on the Assembly floor, all Republicans Tim Donnelly of Twin Peaks, Shannon Grove of Bakersfield, Allan Mansoor of Costa Mesa and Chris Norby of Fullerton. Among the representatives of our area, Assemblyman Bill Berryhill and Cathleen Galgiani both voted for the bill; Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen did not vote on the issue.
That a bill this irresponsible could barrel through both houses of the Legislature with so little scrutiny demonstrates the enormous power of state firefighter and police unions. Public safety unions contribute substantial sums of money to political campaigns. But beyond union money, police and firefighter endorsements can be crucial at election time. Lawmakers are especially fearful of police and firefighter unions endorsing their opponents and launching independent expenditure campaigns against them.
In ordinary times, this bill would be a gross overreach. Yet with so many cities, counties and the state facing economic peril, it's a complete outrage. That the Democratic speaker would introduce such a measure and that the Republican leader, Assemblywoman Connie Conway of Tulare, would vote for it makes it a bipartisan outrage. It's a sorry indication of how legislative leaders are out of touch with the economic burdens that their constituents including cities are confronting.
This bad bill is only one vote and the governor's signature away from becoming law.
Although it may still reach the governor's desk, there's a chance it could be stopped, if enough people send a strong message to legislative leaders.
Contact Your Legislative Leaders
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento: (916) 651-4006, email@example.com
Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles: (916) 319-2046 firstname.lastname@example.org
Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar: (916) 651-4029 email@example.com
Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare: (916) 319-2034 firstname.lastname@example.org