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Petitions submitted to force another pension vote

Oh, good grief.

Voters soon could decide whether to close Houston’s traditional pension plans to new employees after political activists submitted a petition to City Hall to force a referendum this November.

The petition further complicates Mayor Sylvester Turner’s efforts to pass a pension reform bill, which already had hit a hurdle in the state Senate this week on precisely the same issue of whether new hires should be put into “defined contribution” plans similar to 401(k)s instead of one of the city’s three employee pension systems.

The petition, which began circulating at college campuses, grocery stores and elsewhere in February, calls for a public vote to require a shift to defined contribution plans for all city workers hired after the start of 2018.

Under traditional pension plans, the city promises employees specific payments based on their years of service and salaries and makes up for market losses by putting in more money. Defined contribution plans are those in which the city and employee set money aside in an account that rises and falls with the market.

Windi Grimes, a public pension critic and donor to the Megaphone political action committee that sponsored the petition drive, said the group submitted 35,000 signatures to the city secretary’s office Thursday. That easily would clear the 20,000 signatures required by law to trigger a charter referendum, provided City Secretary Anna Russell verifies the names.

Grimes, who also works with Texans for Local Control, a political group that wants Houston, not the Texas Legislature, to control city pensions, had described the petition effort as an “insurance policy” in case the Legislature does not move to defined contribution plans for new city employees.

[…]

Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman ended weeks of negotiations with city officials, union leaders and conservatives over whether and how to incorporate defined contributions plans by releasing a new draft of the pension bill Wednesday. It said the city and workers could agree to move to a defined contribution plan, but did not require that change.

In response, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, another Houston Republican, said he would propose an amendment to ensure the result of any city charter change to defined contribution plans would be binding. That wording is necessary, he and others said, because some lawyers say amending the city charter alone would be insufficient, since Houston’s pensions are controlled by state statute.

“I’m just trying to stay on a public policy position I’ve had for over a decade,” Bettencourt said, adding that he is not working with Megaphone or Texans for Local Control and that he already had filed a separate bill mirroring the language of his amendment.

The Houston reform bill had been expected to reach a Senate vote Thursday, but Bettencourt’s amendment created an impasse: some bill supporters, led by the chamber’s Democrats, were unwilling to let the item come to a vote, fearing they lacked the votes to torpedo Bettencourt’s proposal.

“If he brings it up, (Huffman) says she won’t accept it, but she’s going to need about five or six Republicans to go with us to block it,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “That’s a tough vote for them.”

Turner accused Bettencourt of seeking to kill the pension reform proposal for political gain.

“Quite frankly, what he wants is not a pension resolution. It seems like he’s asking for a re-vote of the mayoral race in 2015, and that’s unfortunate because he’s not putting Houston first,” Turner said. Bettencourt in 2015 supported mayoral runner-up Bill King, who has spent months publicly criticizing Turner’s pension reform plan and calling for a switch to defined contribution plans for new city workers.

I found this story so annoying that I had a hard time putting my thoughts together about it. So I’m just going to say these four things for now:

1. We have already had an election on this question, in 2015 when Sylvester Turner won the Mayor’s race. A lot of people, led by Mayor Turner, have put in a ton of work, including political work, to put forth a workable solution for the city’s pension issues. You can feel however you want about the Mayor’s proposal – the firefighters are certainly not very happy about it – but it represents a Houston solution to a Houston problem, which the voters have already had a say on. These efforts to undermine it are the opposite of that, and the people pushing it are doing so because they don’t like the solution Houston and Mayor Turner have crafted for its problem. They would rather see the whole effort fail, and that is what they are working for.

2. You have to admire the shamelessness in calling this group that has come out of nowhere and is in no way complementary to the Turner plan “Texans for Local Control”. Who wants to bet that it’s funded by a bunch of rich conservative activists who are mostly not from Houston and will go to court to keep their identities secret?

3. The story quotes HPOU President Ray Hunt as saying the petition collection effort is a “sham” and that they have evidence of people signing the petitions multiple times. You’d think that would be a big deal, but then you remember that the Supreme Court ruled in the mandamus that forced the HERO vote in 2015 that the city secretary could only check that a signature belonged to a registered voter. It’s OK if it’s forged – the city secretary is not empowered to check that – as long as the forgery in question belongs to a valid voter.

4. There sure could be a lot of referenda on the ballot this November.

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6 Comments

  1. Ross says:

    The HERO mandamus ruling didn’t say the Secretary can’t check for forgeries, etc. It said that if the Secretary certifies a petition, Council has to comply with the certification, even if Council, or another official, disagrees with the Secretary’s result.

  2. Paul A Kubosh says:

    The old first amendment right to Petition your Government is just a bitter pill to swallow for progressives. As far as who is funding it I am looking forward to your analysis when the report is due.

  3. Steve Houston says:

    Given that the “two who shall not be mentioned” have their fingerprints all over this petition, I doubt they will deny their involvement for long. Otherwise, I am interested to see what amendment Paul comes up with to allow such a petition to override state law. After all, if the mayor and city council can’t trump state law, neither can such a petition absent very specific legislative approval, at least not in a Home Rule city under Texas statute. When I saw the report on Isiah Carey’s Fox News piece, I shook my head.

    PK, I’m too much of a caveman to be listed as a progressive but at some point, you just have to draw a line. Unlike your red light camera petition that informed signers of the facts involved, this one appears to have been sold using an “any means possible” narrative by the paid staff gathering signatures. When people feel the need to trick others into signing something, it just doesn’t pass the smell test. Ultimately, I suspect Paul will fail in Austin and/or this will end up even deeper in the courts.

  4. matx says:

    Again we find TPPF fingerprints on with wealthy and connected Texans – totally not “grass roots”:

    Windi Grimes

    http://www.texasconservativeview.com/who_we_are.htm

  5. Greg Wythe says:

    Considering how much the petition workers flat out lied to collect signatures, we’re obviously well past time to look at updates to state law that govern the collection of petition signatures. If there’s ever a common sense case to be made for dismissing petitions outright, this is the one. It’s a shame that the law doesn’t line up with that.

  6. People advocating for 401k’s for city employees forget that doing so requires paying city employees 20-30% more to match private sector pay.

    This doesn’t solve the budget.

    Are we still waiting for Kubosh to put ideas on a website?

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