HOUSTON — Whether — and how — one of the Texas Legislature’s chief champions of police officers and firefighters gets involved with legislation addressing mounting financial crises with first responders’ pension funds could depend on which cities are impacted by potential bills.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, works for Locke Lord, a law firm whose clients include pension fund boards in Dallas and Houston — cities currently beset by multibillion-dollar pension shortfalls. Because municipal workers’ retirement funds are largely governed by the state, both cities are expected to seek legislative approval of their respective plans to shore up the beleaguered funds.
Whitmire said that while his firm represents pension funds in the cities, he does not work on those accounts and he never talks to professional colleagues about government clients. But after some Dallas City Council members voiced concerns this week over Whitmire’s political role in Austin and his professional position inside the pension funds’ federal lobbying firm, the Democrat said he would likely abstain from voting on Dallas-specific bills “out of an abundance of caution.”
“I go out of my way to avoid the conflicts,” he told The Texas Tribune on Thursday.
Still, that doesn’t mean Whitmire will necessarily sit on the sidelines when it comes to pension issues in the legislative session that begins Tuesday, especially if legislation would impact police and firefighters in Houston. The Democrat said even if he abstains from votes, he may filibuster certain bills or urge his colleagues to vote against them.
It's that potential influence that still concerns Dallas council member Jennifer Gates, who also sits on that city's police and fire pension board.
“I don’t think his conflict is totally resolved,” Gates said. “I think it’s still kind of messy.”
The Texas Constitution allows state lawmakers to author or vote on matters that could benefit them, as long as they would benefit all others in similar circumstances. State lawmakers go to Austin for five months every other year and receive a meager state stipend, a system that is designed to ensure they are in touch with their communities and collectively have expertise in a range of industries.
Whitmire said his potential opposition to bills affecting police and fire pension funds statewide has nothing to do with his job. He said it has everything to do with his constituents, many of whom are first responders.
“I don’t apologize for being the best friend firefighters and policemen have,” Whitmire said.
Whitmire said he could at least vocally oppose a statewide bill that would open the door to first responders being offered defined contribution plans, such as a 401(k), instead of defined benefit plans, like a pension. Neither Dallas or Houston are currently seeking such a switch.
Dallas officials blame part of their pension woes on the fact that pension members largely control benefits while the city has to cover much of the costs. Dallas leaders have indicated that they will seek legislative changes that give the council more power over benefits. That's something else Whitmire said he's likely to vocally oppose or filibuster if it applies to the entire state.
“I am fearful of how the city administration would either borrow or take money from the pensions to operate the city,” Whitmire said.
Gates said it doesn't make sense for Whitmire to pick and choose which pension matters will draw his involvement.
"Either you have a conflict or not," Gates said. "That gray area still makes me feel uncomfortable."
Whitmire said pensions are not just a financial matter. He said that police officers and firefighters spend their lives working high-risk, high-stress jobs at lower pay than if they went into private-sector jobs and that dramatically upending retirement benefits could cause mass retirements and make future recruiting more difficult for cities.
"Their pension is why they put their life on the line," he said.
Related Tribune coverage:
- The Texas Department of Public Safety is investigating whether criminal behavior at least partially contributed to the multi-billion-dollar shortfall facing Dallas' police and fire pension funds.
- Thousands of retired Texas state workers are essentially stuck in 2001. Though health care, food and pretty much everything else keep getting more expensive, their monthly pension checks haven’t budged.