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Unions take aim at statewide volunteers

Posted: September 28, 2008 7:40 p.m.
Updated: November 30, 2008 5:00 a.m.
 

From fires and earthquakes in the West to tornadoes, blizzards and hurricanes in the East, the United States has to contend with many different types of natural disasters. The one constant to all these disasters is that the aid of volunteers greatly enhances the ability of our local, state and federal governments to respond to these crises.

But what if volunteers were not allowed to assist the government in responding to these natural disasters? Or what if volunteers were simply prohibited from assisting in any project funded with government money? That situation very nearly became a reality.

Unknown to many Californians, the act of volunteering one's time freely in this state has been on life support for the past few years.

At issue is a law signed by Governor Gray Davis that expanded the types of public works projects that require prevailing wages to be paid. Soon after that bill was signed, unions filed actions up and down the state alleging that nonprofit groups that received state funds for projects were breaking the law by using volunteers instead of paying union members.

These lawsuits had swift and immediate consequences. The main impact was felt by environmental groups that rely heavily on state funds and volunteers to complete projects vital to our communities and the state like habitat restoration, coastal cleanup and trail maintenance. These projects ceased immediately across the state upon filing of these actions.

Public outcry at the time resulted in the Legislature enacting a short-term fix that exempted nonprofits from this requirement. However, that exemption expires at midnight on Dec. 31, and without new legislation and given the court's history in rendering verdicts in favor of the unions' position, we face even more dire consequences if we do not act to extend or eliminate that sunset.

The most drastic impact could be on public safety responders. During the firestorm of 2007, more than 2,000 trained public safety volunteers stood ready to assist state and local resources in battling the fires.

Many rural and unincorporated regions of the state rely entirely on volunteer firefighters to protect their communities. Additionally, CERT training for disaster preparedness relies heavily on volunteers to assist emergency personnel.

These volunteers were well-used during the 1994 earthquake as well as various wildfires from 2000-2006.

These volunteers are essential to enhancing our state's resources when natural disasters afflict our communities, and unfortunately efforts to extend or eliminate the sunset before it expires in three months were once again greatly hampered this year by the unions.

Even more shocking is that the majority Democrats in the California Legislature initially sided with their special interest union friends in defeating two separate measures that would have resolved this issue.
Due to mounting criticism by me and my Republican colleagues, measures AB 2537 was revived.

Democrats could not resist saddling the bill with onerous union-backed language that requires the Department of Industrial Relations to submit a report studying the impact volunteerism has on prevailing wages at a cost to taxpayers of $100,000.

It is unfortunate that the majority Democrats would play these special interest politics with an issue that is so important and so vital to California.

A far better resolution would have been the Republican proposal to eliminate the sunset altogether and not require a study, but that effort was killed in committee by the Democrats and their union supporters.

I can only hope that in 2012, when the new sunset expires yet again, the Democrats act more appropriately on this matter.

Assemblyman Cameron Smyth represents the 38th district, which includes Santa Clarita Valley. his column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. Right Here, Right Now appears on Monday and rotates among local Republicans.

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