If California voters grant the state government the billions in higher taxes in Proposition 30 that Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative Democrats have been demanding, those same officials might be expected to squander the money by shoveling even more benefits to already well-compensated government workers.
Evidence for such an expectation is a scheme to enrich unionized police and firefighters that came within a whisker of becoming law.
Even in its watered-down form, Assembly Bill 2451 would have exposed California cities and municipalities to an endless amount of financial liabilities for the families of deceased police and firefighters. The legislation also illustrated the surreptitious strategies used to expand benefits in California, as government unions quietly work the system for higher compensation.
The story of AB2451, even though it ended with a veto, also confirms that legislators have in no way reformed their free-spending ways.
In the private sector, employees typically receive injury and death benefits through insurance, and such benefits are linked to work performed on the job. In “public safety” jobs in the public sector, taxpayers foot the bill for disability and death benefits.
Politicians – always currying favor with the unions representing police, firefighters and prison guards – continually expand the categories of illness presumed to be caused by job-related injuries.
So if a retired firefighter or police officer develops heart disease, cancer or any number of other common diseases, the illness often is presumed to be caused by the retiree’s former job. That presumption releases a stream of taxpayer-funded benefits. Under current law, if that employee dies from myriad ailments within four-and-a-half years after the date of injury, the family can receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in survivorship benefits. In the public sector, it’s far easier to make a claim than in the private sector.
Apparently, this wasn’t generous enough for Assembly Speaker John Perez and the Democratic leadership. They came up with a plan that allows family members of deceased police and firefighters to claim more than $300,000 in survivorship benefits up to a year after the person’s death, no matter how old that retired public-safety official may be.
The bill also specified the ailments that are considered “hero ailments” – deaths cause by working as a cop or firefighter. These include: hernia, pneumonia, heart trouble, cancer and leukemia, tuberculosis, blood-borne infectious diseases and certain skin infections.
As the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, summarizing arguments against the bill by local governments, explained: “Thus, any retired safety officer who dies in his or her 80s or 90s of a cancer or heart-related condition would be presumed to have a work-related cause, and his or her dependents would be entitled to a death benefit.
But with the incidence of cancer and heart conditions as the cause of death for many elderly people, the causation for someone 20, 30, or more years removed from service is much more debatable.”
The legislation was amended to “merely” expand the time to nine years after injury in which a benefit claim can be made. It removed a couple of the presumptions from the list, but this still would have been a costly giveaway and provides insight into how legislators think.
Still, it passed overwhelmingly. It even had some original support from Republicans, until Jon Fleischman of the Republican-oriented Flash Report website and others started waving the red flags. GOP support then evaporated.
“What is needed is rational, thoughtful consideration of balancing the serious fiscal constraints faced at all levels of government against our shared priority to adequately and fairly compensate the families of those public safety heroes who succumb to work-related injuries and disease,” Gov. Brown said in his on-point veto message.
But Brown is not so much a born-again fiscal conservative, as someone so committed to the Prop. 30 tax hike plan that he will not give opponents any ammunition to use against it. As the Sacramento Bee reported, “Larry Gerston, a government professor at San Jose State University, said that Brown’s moderation in bill signings points to a much larger goal: passing Prop. 30, his multibillion-dollar tax hike, in November.”
Brown reminds me of the kid who is on his best behavior – i.e., cleaning his room and cutting the lawn – to prove to Mom and Dad that he deserves that new bicycle. Don’t figure the new habits to continue long after he gets what he wants.
AB2451 is built on the fiction, perpetrated by unions eager to use emotional claims to divert more tax dollars to their members, that police officers and firefighters have such dangerous jobs that they die early, which could leave their families destitute.
But based on data from the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the longest-living category of public employee is a police officer, followed closely by firefighters. They live, on average, well into their 80s, which is one of the reasons the state has such a large unfunded pension liability. Public-safety workers receive, by far, the most generous pension and health benefits.
In California, they can retire with 90 percent of their final year’s pay at as soon as age 50 – and spouses receive generous benefits, too. Police and firefighters don’t come near the top of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of most-dangerous jobs.
The Democrats are always talking about shared sacrifice, yet the same-old, same-old takes place in the Capitol – powerful interest groups keep pushing for, and often getting, more.
The state is out of cash. Brown reminds us of that every chance he can. Some cities are teetering on bankruptcy, thanks largely to pensions, medical benefits and other compensation paid to municipal employees.
Taxpayers and job-creators are fleeing the state. Legislators should be reforming the system so that California can be competitive again.
Instead, they want to keep comforting the comfortable (union members) and afflicting the afflicted (taxpayers).
Yes, Brown vetoed some of the worst nonsense, but AB2451 shows what the Legislature will do when it has more money, and no one is looking. Is it wise to give them more of your money?
Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.