PD Editorial: A costly new benefit is not pension reform

Some readers say we're too focused on the rising cost of pensions for public employees.

Without pressure from newspapers, and especially voters, it's unlikely that state legislators would be promising to deliver a pension reform measure before they adjourn at the end of this month.

Even with public scrutiny, and despite promises for reform, the Legislature is inexplicably poised to expand some post-retirement benefits at the urging of police and firefighter unions — and at great expense for local governments, many of which already are struggling to balance their books.

Assembly Speaker John P?ez is carrying legislation to eliminate the long-standing 4?-year statute of limitations on death benefits for survivors of police officers and firefighters who succumb to heart attacks, cancer and other diseases presumed to be work-related.

Spouses and other survivors are entitled to the benefit, which can exceed $250,000, if a public safety officer dies in the line of duty. That's appropriate considering the nature of the job. A limited post-employment benefit, such as the current 4? year period, is appropriate, too, and it has been offered in one form or another since 1917.

But as the Sacramento Bee pointed out in two recent editorials, Per?'s bill would allow relatives of a firefighter, police officer or prison guard to collect death benefits if their loved one died decades after retiring.

With public safety officers allowed to retire as young as age 50, it's not implausible that a claim for work-related death benefits could come 30 or even 40 years later.

It wouldn't matter how long someone had been retired, nor whether they retired on disability or ever filed a worker's compensation claim.

And, like the 50 percent increase in public-safety pension payments authorized in 1999, this new benefit would be retroactive, covering people who already retired as well as those still working law enforcement and fire protection.

Moreover, if family members didn't claim the benefit, the state could, with the money to be deposited in a special fund called the uninsured employer benefit fund.

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