In a year when California faces a $19 billion budget deficit, how do politicians in Sacramento propose to solve it? By pushing cities, counties, and the state into deeper financial peril in order to reward their benefactors.
I've been unable to find a medical consensus about the existence of the supposed menace I'll call "cop cancer" — where police and firefighters claim to be exposed to deadly carcinogens at work. But this illness threatens to cost the state's general fund $200 million a year.
Meet the William "Dallas" Jones Cancer Presumption Act of 2010, which has been passed by both the Assembly and the state Senate. If Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signs the bill, it would compel workers' compensation officials to presume that firefighters and police officers who get cancer long after they retire became sick because of work. So if chain-smoking cops develop lung cancer 9 years after leaving the job, the government will have to pay their workers' comp health care costs. But that's not all. In many cases, the government would throw in disability pay on top of retirees' pensions. Officials would have the option of trying to "explicitly demonstrate" there was no cancer connection. But that's a virtually impossible negative to prove.
Cops and firefighters already enjoy a version of this benefit. Under current law, former public safety employees who get cancer within five years of retirement are presumed to have acquired the ailment from their old jobs. The new legislation would double that presumption period to 10 years.
The bill is named for a cancer-stricken former secretary-treasurer of California Professional Firefighters, the state umbrella organization for unions that is backing the bill. It's typical of the election-year pieces of legislation Democratic lawmakers carry for their union supporters.
Since 2009, California Professional Firefighters has donated $3,000 to the re-election campaign of Assemblyman Joe Coto (D-San Jose), who is carrying the bill. The labor group also has given more than $1 million to Jerry Brown's campaign for governor, and more than $500,000 to the state Democratic Central Committee.
Thanks to a merry-go-round where public-sector unions make campaign contributions and state politicians pass legislation packed with perks, "our pension benefits have increased over 2,000 percent over the past decade," said David Wolfe, legislative director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which advocates lower taxes. "We can't afford to be adding to that number."
Despite controversy this year surrounding crippling deficits and ballooning pension obligations, California seems poised to do just that unless Schwarzenegger vetoes the bill. A spokesman said the governor has yet to take a position.
Who can argue against medical care for cancer-stricken heroes? Public safety unions bet correctly that few Sacramento lawmakers would. Legislators threw more public money at a class of retirees who are already well taken care of. And they have attempted to write into law a supposed cancer link not well supported by science.
The unions' campaign for the bill insists that police and firefighting work causes cancer. "The epidemiological evidence is pretty clear between public safety and firefighter risk," California Professional Firefighters spokesman Carroll Wills told me.
That's what firefighters have been saying for a long time. Indeed, it's the argument that created the five-year presumption period. But the problem is that there's no proof of such a link, according to the Centers for Disease Control's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "That's been a long-standing concern among firefighters whether cases of cancer among their ranks were caused by exposures to toxics in the line of duty," spokesman Fred Blosser says. "I think the scientific research has been inconclusive on that."
To answer the question of whether firefighters are extraordinarily prone to cancer, the CDC has recruited fire departments from San Francisco and two other cities to participate in a study designed to determine whether there really is a link.
For police officers, who don't usually run gasping through smoky buildings, the evidence is even thinner. Wills pointed me to a 1998 study that found that cops in Buffalo seemed to have a greater than usual incidence of heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver, and certain cancers. "Law enforcement officers are exposed to similar toxins to the ones that firefighters face," he says. "So our view is the nature of the cancer risk that law enforcement personnel are comparable to the ones that firefighters are exposed to." A representative of the Peace Officers Research Association of California hadn't returned a phone message seeking comment by press time.
NIOSH "has done research on police officers and work stress, risk of job-related violence, and reproductive concerns for bicycle patrol officers," Blosser says. "But I don't believe we have any research on cancer and police."
Even if there were no known link between policing and malignancy, I'd support caring for cancer patients whatever the cause. Who wouldn't? But passage of this bill will do nothing to make sure San Francisco cops and firefighters get good medical care. Their extraordinarily generous city-funded retirement health plans already ensure that.
Similarly, I'm no advocate of workers becoming impoverished because of injury or disease. But we're talking about well-pensioned police and fire retirees. In San Francisco, they can earn six-figure pensions in government payments throughout their golden years.
The cities of San Marcos, Santa Rosa, and Vista oppose the bill, as do the California State Association of Counties and the League of California Cities. San Francisco has yet to take a position. In April, the Assembly Appropriations Committee produced analysis saying that costs to the state's general fund would exceed $200 million per year, not counting costs to cities, counties, and joint-powers authorities. The bill has been slightly amended since, but potential costs remain high.
Though the bill won't go far improving public safety health care, it will put cash in police and firefighters' pockets. If the bill passes, a police officer who gets cancer 9 years after retiring — regardless of his family history, whether he smoked, or any other medical evidence — would be eligible for cash payments on top of his pension. If he were deemed 100 percent disabled by his cancer, he would receive $986.69 per week for the rest of his life. If he had a wife who didn't work — who was 100 percent dependent — she could receive the same amount per week following his death.
The bill would increase San Francisco's annual workers' compensation bills for cancer-stricken public-safety retirees by more than 50 percent to about $1.2 million without notably improving their health care.
Just a few months ago, this seemed to be the year California finally realized just how lavish its public payrolls had become. On Aug. 3, SF Weekly reported that that former Police Chief Heather Fong cashed in $95,907 worth of unused sick days on top of her $266,000 pension. In a still-unfolding scandal in the tiny L.A. suburb of Bell, the city manager was paid $800,000 per year, topped off with a lifetime pension worth roughly $30 million.
Earlier this year, state Treasurer John Chiang supported legislation intended to reduce so-called pension spiking, where government workers tack on leave, last-minute promotions, overtime, and other pay to their final year's salaries to boost their pensions. And San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi has famously backed a ballot measure requiring city workers to contribute more to their pension and health benefit costs, citing unfunded city medical obligations totaling $4 billion.
But Chiang withdrew his support last week after amendments added at the unions' behest watered down the pension reform bill to near-meaninglessness. In San Francisco the mayor and much of the rest of the city's political establishment have attacked Adachi as a menace to the little guy.
Even if Adachi's measure passes, its benefits will erode over time. In Sacramento and San Francisco, public sector unions will continue their decades-long practice of financing Democratic candidates' campaigns for office, then getting them to back innocuous-seeming, yet lavish pay-and-benefits-padding legislation.
That's the real cancer afflicting California.