Texas Senate passes city's pension reform plan; House to vote Wednesday
AUSTIN – The hard fought overhaul of Houston’s troubled pension system won final Senate approval by a large margin Tuesday, with a vote of 25-5.
The bill now goes to the Texas House, where approval would send it to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.
It’s a big win for Mayor Sylvester Turner and the bill’s author, Sen. Joan Huffman (R), of Houston.
The mayor praised the Senate vote in a written statement Tuesday, saying, "Houston is very thankful for the Senate, our author Chairwoman Joan Huffman and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick for their support. On to the House for the final legislative step to approve the Houston Pension Solution."
The Senate bill encompasses Turner’s pension reform plan, which requires cuts in future employee benefits, coupled with the sale of bonds to begin whittling down the city’s $8 billion pension deficit.
The bill requires a city-wide referendum to approve sale of the bonds.
The plan has already been approved once by the Senate and by the House.
Three amendments favored by firefighters were tacked on in the House, but all three were later stripped from the bill in conference committees.
The reform plan is opposed by Houston firefighters who contend the future benefit cuts they would be required to take will spark an exodus of experienced firefighters from the Houston Fire Department.
"We’re urging House members to vote against the bill,” David Keller, chairman of the Houston Firefighter’s Relief and Retirement Fund, said after the Senate vote.
“The bill is punitive and unfair. We’re 18 percent of the city’s pension debt and 39 percent of the proposed solution,” Keller said in reference to the city’s unfunded pension obligations and cuts in future benefits to firefighters required under the plan.
Huffman said firefighters were invited to participate in crafting the bill, but chose not to do so.
“We still feel it was a fair outcome to them," Huffman said. "I was careful to make sure we incorporated concessions to the firefighters even though they didn’t participate the entire way.”
Tuesday, Jacki Dowling, the widow of Capt. “Iron Bill” Dowling, joined the debate.
She posted a Facebook video, which includes a photograph of Capt. Dowling on his death bed. She said the pension bill will take away benefits firefighters have already earned.
“We need everyone to call their senators, to call their House representatives and tell them please to vote no on this bill,” Jacki Dowling posted on Facebook.
The Greater Houston Partnership, which supports the reform package, issued a statement Tuesday, urging passage of the bill.
In part, it says, “The Greater Houston Partnership strongly supports adoption of the final bill, which will put Houston on a sustainable financial path and offer retirement security to police, fire and municipal workers.
"Houston business leaders signed a letter to leaders in Austin in support of the reform bill, citing Houston’s unique opportunity to address its net pension liability (NPL) while it’s still at an addressable level. Reducing the NPL by $3.5 billion leads to a manageable pay down schedule and an improved budget outlook for the City of Houston."
“When other cities and states have reformed pensions, they have permanently eliminated categories of benefits. That is not the case here," Partnership President and CEO Bob Harvey said. "By putting the right savings number into the plan up front, the police, fire and municipal workers are all protected.”
The final vote in the Texas House is expected Wednesday.
David Keller, HFRRF Chairman released the following statement:
"We expected this outcome in the Senate but we’re disappointed nonetheless.
"Our hope – my hope for Houston’s hardworking active and retired firefighters – is that the House will reject SB 2190 because it is punitive to Houston’s first responders.
"The House voted overwhelmingly to amend SB 2190 and to make it more fair for firefighters.
"With these amendments stripped it is no longer the legislation they approved and sent to conference; it is now back to the unfair legislation it was before and should be defeated.
"If it is passed, our retirees will have to choose whether to eat or buy medicine.
"We’re doing everything we can to beat this punitive bill.
"We’ll see you tomorrow."
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