PHOENIX - An Arizona lawmaker wants the state’s voters to approve a measure that would ensure the families of police, firefighters and other public safety officers get at least $1 million if their loved one dies on the job.
Sen. David Livingston said his intent is to add state money to any other work-related death benefits the families receive to reach the $1 million threshold. Besides state and local law enforcement officers, sworn employees of public fire agencies and state and private corrections officers, U.S. Border Patrol agents who live in the state and Arizona National Guard members also will be covered.
All fallen public safety officers get a federal death benefit that now tops $350,000. Many also get state benefits and work-related life insurance. Survivors of National Guard members who die on active duty get a $100,00 benefit and can buy additional life insurance.
And families often are awarded lifetime pensions if their loved-one was enrolled in the state public safety retirement system.
Still, Livingston said that’s not enough.
“The families are not starving, but the families will never recover emotionally,” he said. ”The kids are going to have to grow up without that mom and dad.”
The Peoria Republican said he expects the annual cost to taxpayers to be about $5 million, based on five to 10 on-duty deaths per year across the state. A formal analysis by the senate’s analysts hasn’t been completed.
If passed, Livingston said he wants the measure would make up the difference between any federal, state or local death benefit and $1 million. For instance, if the family only qualified for the $350,000 federal benefit, the state would kick in $650,000. If they also got another death benefit, the supplemental state amount would decrease.
It’s not clear the language of the measure actually backs what Livingston said he intended. A plain reading of the language appears to count only the federal death benefit, meaning the state would be on the hook for an additional $650,000 per death.
Changes to legislation are not uncommon when what is drafted differs from the original intent of the bill sponsor.
Livingston acknowledged that the Legislature could simply pass the benefit without going to the voters, but there are reasons for making that move to “level the playing field” among all who serve.
“That’s why we’re doing that and sending it to the ballot,” he said. “So the citizens of the state can kind of say, ‘Thank you, we appreciate the work you’re doing, we want this benefit to go to you guys.’”
FBI statistics show 106 police officers across the nation died from accidents or assaults in 2018, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency said 82 firefighters died on duty that year.
The deaths of 19 Arizona wildland firefighters in one 2013 incident showed just how much such a mass casualty event can cost.
The ongoing yearly cost for state pensions alone for the six permanently-employed Granite Mountain Hotshots exceeded $425,000, according to a report by the Legislature’s budget analysts. The city of Prescott, which employed the crew, is on the hook for a major increase in pension costs because of the tragedy.
The families of all 19 qualified for the federal death benefit, which that year was $328,000. The total federal cost was $6.4 million. Their work life insurance paid out another $550,000.