An appointee of Gov. Rick Perry is organizing a state-paid trip to New York to showcase the firefighter pension system and take Texas legislators on VIP sightseeing tours — inviting criticism about potentially wasteful spending at a time of budgetary strain.
Sherri Walker, the Perry appointee who heads up the Fire Fighters’ Pension Commission, told The Texas Tribune this week that taxpayers are picking up the tab to send her and two staffers to New York, where they plan to stay at the historic Radisson Martinique between Broadway and Fifth Avenue.
Rooms at the hotel go for $309 a night before taxes, a rate Walker called “excellent for this time of year.”
The volunteer firefighter pension fund and training dollars appropriated to the agency by the Legislature are also being tapped to help defray costs of the trip, expected to include five trustees from firefighter pension oversight boards, Walker said.
Walker said that up to a half-dozen Texas legislators will accompany her and the trustees on the “educational” trip but are not billing the pension fund or her agency. The Tribune has not been able to identify any lawmakers who plan to attend. Walker said she had expected state Rep. Vicki Truitt, chairwoman of the House Pensions, Investments and Financial Services Committee, to go on the trip. But Walker isn’t sure now whether the Southlake Republican still plans to go. A call placed to Truitt’s office was not returned.
On Wednesday evening, Walker released a list of four other lawmakers whom she expected to attend, but two of them, Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, and Rep. Marisa Marquez, D-El Paso, told the Tribune they could not attend. Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said he was mulling it over but had not been told state funds were being expended on the excursion. He said he would be traveling at his own expense should he decide to attend.
The fourth, Rep. Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco, could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.
The “privileged guests” will get a tour of the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, a VIP tour of the Ground Zero site, a ride on a fire boat, a visit to the fire station that responded first to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a “legislative mixer,” according to a letter and flyer Walker sent to legislators’ offices.
Officials are also scheduled to visit the New York trading house, Rebeco, that invests the volunteer firefighters’ pension fund money, she said.
Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of the conservative watchdog group Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, called the trip a misguided “vacation” and advised the agency to draw up a written presentation instead.
“The only thing missing here is going skating at Rockefeller Plaza,” Sullivan said. “A waterfront tour of the New York skyline on a fire boat does not have a single thing to do with educating people about the pension fund. It doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Walker said the agency’s finances and structure are so complicated that paper and handouts won’t do.
“I always found hands-on experience is the best way,” she said. “I really think this is probably the biggest bang for the buck this agency is going to get.”
Walker also said the trip would give her agency a chance to stress the important role played by the commission that oversees the $64 million pension fund for volunteer firefighters and conducts training and educations seminars for 121 other pension systems that provide benefits to paid firefighters and emergency service workers.
“That’s what this whole thing is about. The Legislature just doesn’t get us. Twice our agency has been on the cutting-room floor when it comes to appropriations,” Walker said. “This is a good educational experience all around.”
Perry spokesman Josh Havens said the governor’s office knew about the Dec. 5-6 trip and expected the agency to make wise use of any state dollars.
“Our office was aware of this,” Havens said. “As we do with all state agencies, we expect the members of the commission to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and act in the best interest of the Texans they serve. "