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March 6, 2013

Second life for death benefits giveaway bill

It's back.

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez has reintroduced his death benefits giveaway bill for the benefit of powerful police and firefighters unions.

Like last year's measure, this year's Assembly Bill 1373 seeks to expand the statute of limitations under which surviving family members of California police and firefighters can claim death benefits worth a quarter of a million dollars at minimum. Just how costly these enhanced benefits will be to state and local governments is still unclear. A draft of this bill, introduced right before the bill deadline on Feb. 22, leaves out key specifics. But representatives for beleaguered local governments are bracing for the worst.

Under current law, surviving family members of public safety officers injured in the line of duty cannot collect death benefits if the officer dies more than 4 1/2 years after the date of the injury.

Current law also provides that cancer and heart disease when contracted by a police officer or firefighter are presumed to be job-related.

As originally introduced, last year's measure would have eliminated the statute of limitations entirely for death benefits for public safety officers. So, given the presumptions in law, if an officer died of cancer or a heart attack 10 or even 20 years after retiring, his family could still collect death benefits worth a quarter million dollars at minimum. Eventually the bill was tightened to double the statute of limitations, not eliminate it entirely.

Even with its more limited scope, the Pérez bill created huge additional liabilities for the state and for cities and counties.

Despite strong opposition from local governments that cited hundreds of millions of dollars in potential cost, the bill easily passed through both houses of the labor-friendly, Democratic-dominated Legislature.

Thankfully, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill. In his veto message, he cited both the bill's huge costs and the lack of "credible evidence" that death by cancer is more common for firefighters than for people in the general population. He said he would revisit the issue if he had more information. And he specifically cited national research currently under way to study cancer death rates among firefighters. That study is not expected to be finished before 2014.

Nonetheless, the Pérez bill has been introduced before the results are known. A spokesman for the speaker says it was necessary to introduce it this early to meet the bill introduction deadlines for the current session.

The California Professional Firefighters, sponsors of the bill, say this year's version is more modest than what they pushed last year. For example, it will not apply to officers who are diagnosed after they retire. Still, it's fiscally imprudent.

While state and local government finances have improved in recent months, cities and counties and the state still face serious economic challenges. Local and state police and firefighters remain among the most well paid and lavishly pensioned public servants in the nation.

California voters agreed to raise taxes through Proposition 30 in November on the promise the revenue would reduce the state's deficit, not be used for additional spending. If the governor and legislative leaders intend to keep that promise, they shouldn't increase perks for public employees who already enjoy among the richest benefits available to workers anywhere in the nation.

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