Our View: Pricey pandering to public safety unions
Legislators should not mindlessly ratchet up personnel costs for government. But a low-profile bill in the Legislature would offer an egregious handout to politically powerful public safety unions, at taxpayer expense. The Senate should kill this irresponsible legislation — and if the Senate fails, the governor should veto it.
AB 2451, by Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, would tinker with workers' compensation to effectively create a taxpayer-funded life insurance policy for police, firefighters and other public safety workers. The bill is now awaiting a final Senate vote.
Currently, when workers die from job-related injuries, workers' comp pays their families death benefits, usually running from $250,000 to more than $300,000. But the law generally limits those payouts to deaths that occur within 4 1/2 years of the injury. AB 2451 would erase that time limit for public safety workers, entitling their survivors to a death benefit from job-related health conditions regardless of when the worker left public employment. State law already automatically assumes that ailments such as heart disease, cancer and pneumonia, among others, are job-related for public safety workers.
The result would be a sweeping and nearly unlimited expansion of government-funded death benefit payouts for one class of employees. Under the bill, the families of public safety workers who die, for example, from cancer or heart disease — common late-life illnesses — would receive the taxpayer-funded death benefit, even if they retired 25 or 30 years earlier. And that payout would not require demonstrating any link between job and illness.
That approach upends the whole concept of workers' compensation. Californians do not begrudge death benefits to people who die on the job, or from work-related causes. But requiring taxpayers to fund survivor benefits on the basis that workers' deaths might somehow have been caused by a job they left years ago stretches that premise to the breaking point.
Nor does this largesse come cheap, though the Legislature has downplayed that issue. The bill bypassed the legislative committees responsible for fiscal analysis — which should be a warning sign. The only mention of cost at all is in an Assembly analysis that puts the price at "potentially in the hundreds of millions of dollars" for state and local governments. The California State Association of Counties, however, estimates that AB 2451 would increase costs for counties alone by $60 million a year. Creating a huge new public expense is reckless when state and local governments are swimming in red ink.
Supporters of the bill argue the current time limit on receiving the benefits is too short for ailments, such as cancer, which can take years to develop. But that contention hardly justifies scrapping all limitations on these publicly funded payouts. Besides, state law is already exceedingly generous to public safety workers.
The Legislature does not need to inflict yet another fiscal disaster on California. AB 2541 ignores public costs in the service of political pandering — and that approach alone is reason enough to kill this bill.