Whenever I write about some of the absurd benefits and gamesmanship that flourish within California's public sector, people write back in disbelief. They have no idea the many special payments and protections afforded to the state's government employees—the types of things that virtually no one in the private sector would expect to receive.
I'm not referring to the generous retirement plans, which allow "public safety" workers to retire at age 50 with 90 percent or more of their final three years' pay and many miscellaneous employees to retire at age 57 with 82 percent of their pay. Or the Cadillac-style medical benefits.
Many people know about those things, especially given the state's growing pension debt and the "crowding out" of public services caused by these unsustainably costly programs. But what about the bizarre stuff that somehow has become law?
For instance, newspapers used the term "chief's disease," which refers to the way high-ranking California police officials often retire with a disability—thus protecting half of their income from taxes. Disabilities have become another entitlement, whereby some normal ailments that afflict our aging bodies can become a drain on the public till.
Then there are the so-called "presumptions." If, say, after an aged retired firefighter is diagnosed with cancer it's presumed to be caused by the job, thus opening up a storehouse of publicly funded benefits. There are "donning and doffing" rules, whereby law-enforcement officials may be paid for their time putting on and taking off their uniforms. Did you know that the state's billboard inspectors were added in 2002 to the category of public-safety officials, thus enabling them to retire with the most generous pension packages?
There are myriad—and perfectly legal—pension-spiking gimmicks that, say, provide special "management pay" for managers, or give librarians extra pay for helping library patrons, or government-employed gardeners salary boosts for working on sprinkler systems. These are the normal part of their job descriptions, but thanks to various little-known laws these employees get to inflate their final salary and boost their lifelong pensions.
News reports are filled with stories of public employees who receive massive payouts thanks to "Deferred Retirement Option Plans" and overtime pay, and public agencies that are forced to rehire employees (often with back pay and sometimes settlements) who were accused of behaving in a less-than-honorable manner.
How on Earth do these deals get perpetrated? Why can't California officials get control of costs and waste that undermine the effectiveness of the state's bureaucracies?
Those are the usual questions. The simple answer is that the state's politically powerful public-sector unions are like rust. They never sleep. They continually push for new benefits—and oppose reforms to old ones—in the state Legislature and within city councils. Most of these are approved quietly, with little media coverage and even less opposition. No one wants to go on record opposing police officers, teachers or other public servants. No sane politician wants to incur their unions' wrath come Election Day. It's easier to give in.
But examples always are illustrative. Two weeks ago, I wrote about four Orange County deputies who had attended the Jason Aldean concert in Las Vegas on their personal time. When the gunman began firing on the crowd, the officers behaved the way many people behaved that day. They used their policing skills to help out fellow concert-goers. Good for them.
But unlike other people who did what they could with their own training and skills, these officers—and some others in different Southern California agencies—filed workers' compensation claims with their home counties to receive additional leave and medical benefits because of injuries they sustained during that horrific event. Indeed, Tom Dominguez, president of the Orange County deputies union, told the Orange County Register that he traveled to Las Vegas after the shooting and while there he encouraged deputies who helped others to file claims.
"If they deny the claims, then the message that they're sending to their peace officers is not to take action when it is certainly warranted," Dominguez told the newspaper. That struck this columnist as a cynical statement, and something that could undermine the very concept of public service.
Assemblyman Tom Daly, D-Anaheim, has since proven that cynicism isn't reserved for union officials. He told the Register this week that he plans to introduce legislation to require such compensation for off-duty officers involved in out-of-state crimes after the Orange County Board of Supervisors denied the deputies' claims. If passed, it would apply retroactively.
The county obviously did the right thing given that these officers were not on duty and were in Nevada, not California. But there's little doubt his measure will move through the Legislature as union-friendly Democrats and law-and-order Republicans trip over themselves to prove their generosity with taxpayers' funds.
And that is a primer on how these things happen. It's time to suspend disbelief.