EDITORIAL: This benefit increase is not wise public policy

Assembly Speaker John A. Perez has introduced a pared-down version of his bill to expand benefits for police and firefighters injured in the line of duty. Even in its more modest incarnation, cities and counties oppose the measure. They fear it will impose unspecified additional costs on local governments that could add up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

While police, firefighters and prison guards take daily risks to ensure public safety, they already have generous health, retirement and death benefits. Public safety workers are the only public employees for whom certain illnesses -- among them cancer, tuberculosis and blood-borne infections -- are presumed to be work-related. Under current law, if the public safety worker sickened or injured in the line of duty dies within 240 weeks or almost five years after the injury or onset of illness, their survivors are eligible for a death benefit worth more than $300,000 in some cases.

The speaker's bill would extend that statute of limitations to an as yet unspecified time period.

In arguing for this bill, firefighters point to those rare instances when a firefighter suffering from cancer dies just a day or week beyond the 240-week cutoff period for survivor benefits. But those anecdotes suggest falsely that the families of deceased firefighters and police officers are left destitute in these situations. That is hardly the case. Surviving spouses are eligible for generous lifetime health and retirement benefits.

The additional $300,000 lump-sum death benefit that Speaker Perez seeks with his bill is excessive. It is especially so at a time when cities and counties are struggling to figure out how to pay for unfunded liabilities for pensions and health care -- benefits that public employee unions secured through past lobbying campaigns like the one they are engaged in now.