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On city delegations and firefighter pensions

There are two points of interest in this Chron editorial about the Legislature and the desire of the city to get a bill passed that would give it some leverage over the firefighters in their fight over the pension fund.

Sometimes we wonder if there really is such a thing as a “Houston delegation” representing our city’s interests in the Texas Legislature.

This is one of those moments. With the deadline for filing bills coming in a legislative heartbeat, on March 8, no representative or senator from Houston has stepped up to carry legislation dealing with what is without question the most important issue facing our city in Austin.

We’re speaking of a bill that would, once and for all, get city pension matters out of the Legislature’s hands and return them to local control.

Failure of a single lawmaker with Houston behind his or her name to take this step is a deep disappointment. The failure of any of our representatives to do so for the second session in a row borders on political malfeasance. Shame!

The inability of the city to have the right of “meet and confer” with representatives of the firefighters pension fund leaves our leaders literally “flying blind” in estimating the amounts owed by city taxpayers to fund the firefighters’ pensions. Enabling legislation granting “meet and confer” with the firefighters is the essential first step in effectively managing the long-term funding obligations of the city to this group. With the firefighters continuing to enjoy the privilege of withholding pension fund information from city officials, the best Mayor Parker and other leaders can hope for is an uneasy truce with municipal employees and Houston police officers, whose pension boards have agreed to meet and confer and changed their benefits. At least through meet and confer with the other employee groups the city has been able to provide sustainable benefit structures for future and recently hired employees.

I’m not going to get into the merits or demerits of such legislation. I’ve talked about it plenty – see here, here, here, and here for a sample – and will undoubtedly talk more about it in the future. But note the bit about the March 8 deadline for filing legislation. If the kind of bill the Chron wants does not get filed by then, that’s it for two years. What that means in particular is that as we enter the city of Houston election season, anyone who talks about the need to control pension costs without acknowledging the legislative aspect of it and the need to find someone to author or sponsor a bill is someone who shouldn’t be taken seriously. Again, I’m not taking a position here on the wisdom of this approach, just pointing out the legal realities. This is a legislative issue first. Tell me what you would do about that, then I’ll listen when you want to talk about what you would do when and if that obstacle is removed. If you’re not even aware that there is an obstacle, then the rest of what you have to say isn’t important anyway.

The other point is this:

There are 37 people representing Houston in Austin – 29 in the Texas House of Representatives and eight in the Texas Senate.

I stared at that list for a few minutes, trying to figure out how they came up with it. The list contains all 24 members of the Harris County delegation, three of the four members from Fort Bend (all but Phil Stephenson), and two of the three from Montgomery County (Cecil Bell and Steve Toth, but not Brandon Creighton). It’s true that the city of Houston extends into those other counties, but the footprint in each is small. In the 2012 election, 998 votes were cast in Montgomery County for the city of Houston bond propositions. This represents less than 0.6% of the 175,419 total votes in Montgomery County. In Fort Bend, 9,304 votes were cast out of 222,626 total, which is 4.1%; we also know that there are a total of 21,504 voters in the relevant precincts, and 341,523 total voters, or 6.3%. Point being, the reach of Houston into these counties is quite limited. I’m pretty sure only Toth, whose district is on the south end of Montgomery, and Ron Reynolds actually have Houston voters as constituents.

It turns out that the Chron complied this list the way that I would have if I had no other information available to me and wanted to take a stab at figuring out who represents Houston. They simply went to the Find Your Representative query on the Texas House webpage, filled in “Houston” for the city, and then alphabetized the result without giving the matter any further thought. If I were to ask Olivia to research the question and she came back with this answer, I’d tell her she did a good job getting this far. I’d also tell her that we could refine the result and come up with a more appropriate list. It might occur to you, for example, that Harris County is roughly twice the population of Houston. Surely there are a few reps whose districts fall entirely within the non-Houston parts of Harris County. How could one tell? Well, one could check Harris County precinct results from the 2012 elections to see which State Rep districts contained no votes for the Houston bond propositions. And guess what? I already did that work for you. State Rep districts 128 (Wayne Smith), 130 (Allen Fletcher), 135 (Gary Elkins), and 150 (Debbie Riddle) lie entirely outside the city limits of Houston. If anyone took up the Chron’s call to action after reading this editorial, it would be completely appropriate for them to say in response that this was none of their concern. In fact, that’s the response I’d want them to give since they don’t actually represent any Houston voters. Districts 126 (Patricia Harless), 132 (Bill Callegari), and 144 (Mary Ann Perez) have minimal overlap with Houston; if any of them declined to get involved on the grounds that they have higher priorities for their districts and constituents, I would not blame them. That reduces the “Houston delegation” down to 19 in the House. As for the Senate, I didn’t do this analysis for Senate districts back then, and frankly I don’t feel like doing it now. I’d be pretty confident about excluding Sens. Glenn Hegar and Tommy Williams from the “Houston” list, and I’d note that about two-thirds of Larry Taylor’s voters live in Galveston and Brazoria Counties. That takes our size-38 delegation down to 24, and it didn’t take me very long to figure that out. Why the Chron didn’t take a few more minutes to do the same is a question I can’t answer.

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3 Comments

  1. Steven says:

    I’d like to think those in the legislature refused to carry such a bill because they were aware how HFD is one of the poorest paid departments in the country with some of the lowest pension benefits or the proof positive that Meet & Confer agreements have proven disastrous for other city employees (police and municipal employees have given back large amounts of benefits over the last 9 years only to be told they are still too generous while the city repeatedly refuses to contribute needed amounts to properly fund them). Unfortunately, the reality is likely related to political machinations of both major political parties.

    The GOP clamoring for pension reform has been hindered by the detailed report of Republican State Comptroller Susan Combs showing how the pension “crisis” in Texas is a mostly a figment of the imagination, another scheme by a few to lower benefits that are already among the lowest in the nation. Further, any assistance they render Democratic Mayor Parker in introducing her legislation will bite them twofold; first by potentially giving her ammunition to run for higher office when she is term limited out of office and/or when she runs for her final term later this year, and second when their fellow party members attack them for helping her (labeling them as RINOs or collaborators during primary season).

    The flip side of the coin is that her own party is already losing support of workers, the accusation that she has a personal grudge against HFD having more than enough evidence not helping her either. Of all city workers, firemen are typically viewed in the most favorable light since they are the ones who come to help when a house or business is on fire or someone is suffering from a medical problem. There has also been reports that they will not submit such legislation out of respect for former fireman Mario Gallegos Jr, the state senator who long championed HFD that passed away late last year. It does not help her cause when that pension is so close to being completely funded even with the pension payment holidays they allowed the city in recent years, employee contributions and system returns funding the bulk of the fund.

    Mayor Parker was supposed to commission a “road show” to support her claims regarding how terrible HFD’s pension was to city finances but the closer the facts were looked at, the tougher it was to spin them into a convincing argument. HFD do not get Social Security, saving the city tens of millions each year, and their pay scale is well below average on all fronts; their worse off counterparts under Meet & Confer perfect examples of why changes should be towards removing city control of the other two pensions rather than instill control in this one too.

  2. [...] There are fewer than 37 members that actually have Houston voters in their districts. Sorry, I’m still going to be nitpicky [...]

  3. [...] just want to know one thing: Has everyone on the Chron’s editorial board forgotten about the two editorials they wrote in February and March that took every member of the Houston legislative delegation [...]

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