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Houston pension bill heads for governor's desk, but firefighters are still mad

The House passed a controversial Senate version of a Houston pension bill, angering firefighters. But in Dallas, leaders appear to have coalesced around a bill that once divided the mayor and first responders in that city.

Retired Houston firefighters and their supporters watch from the state House gallery on May 6, 2017. 

The Texas House on Wednesday approved the controversial Senate version of a bill that aims to overhaul Houston’s failing pension funds — over the passionate objections of current and former firefighters. 

Senate Bill 2190, which passed in a 103-43 vote, now heads to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. But the months of rancor between firefighters and Houston officials promise to linger long after the legislative session ends Monday.

Meanwhile, Dallas leaders appear to have coalesced around the Senate's version of that city's pension bill.

(Update, May 31: Abbott signed both the Houston and Dallas pension bills into law.)

Both cities have experienced bruising battles over their respective legislation this session, bills aimed at shoring up billions in shortfalls.  

The Houston bill passed Wednesday without two amendments the House had previously added in an apparent attempt to appease firefighters. One amendment would have prevented the bill from impacting current firefighter retirees. The other could have allowed the firefighter pension system to bear a smaller burden in paying down unfunded liabilities shoring up billions in shortfalls in three city employee retirement funds.

That drew the anger of firefighter pension members, dozens of whom sat in the House gallery Wednesday. Some shouted down to representatives as they walked out after the vote. One woman could be heard yelling, “Shameful!”

After the vote, Houston firefighter pension board chairman David Keller said he was disappointed in the vote. During the session, pension officials had suggested such legislation could be unconstitutional because it determines the financial boundaries the fund should stay within. Keller said the Constitution says that power is left solely to the pension board.

Keller said it was too soon to determine if the pension board will file a lawsuit.

“We will explore every option available to us,” he said.

But state Rep. Dan Flynn, who carried the bill in the House, said that killing the bill because firefighters remained unhappy would have exasperated the dire financial situation the city and the retirement funds are experiencing. The bill addresses pensions for firefighters, police and municipal employees. 

“If we don’t pass it, there won’t be any pensions,” the Canton Republican told The Texas Tribune earlier this year. 

Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, authored the amendment that could have helped the firefighter pension fund bear less of the burden shoring up the city’s shortfalls. The amendment would have given pension officials more time to provide data showing that financial forecasts estimate the fund will be in better shape than Houston officials estimated.

But on Wednesday, he urged his colleagues to vote for the bill without the amendment.

“We’ve done everything we can to work hard in good faith,” Huberty said.

Keller, the pension chairman, said the pension board offered to provide the data under licensing agreements that included confidentiality provisions. He said the city never responded.

When asked if firefighters would campaign against any Houston-area state officials who backed the bill, Keller said “it’s hard to say.”

“But I know the firefighters are having a lot of emotions right now: loss, anger,” he said. “And they’ve been shown to be politically active.”

At a news conference in Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner called the passage a “celebration” for the city. Turner made overhauling the pension funds a top priority after he took office last year. He spearheaded efforts with all three pension funds and state lawmakers to craft this session’s legislation.

“This is one of those moments where you just kinda want to take it in,” he said.

After division in Dallas, leaders there unite

Meanwhile, Senate changes to legislation aimed at fixing Dallas’ troubled police and fire pension fund seemed to ease tensions between city officials and pension leaders in that city. The Senate on Tuesday unanimously approved House Bill 3158, with provisions that will allow the mayor to appoint a majority of pension board members, change how the city’s contributions are calculated after 2024, and require super-majority votes on major changes to benefits and contributions.

Flynn, who authored the bill, supported those changes and isn’t expected to oppose them when they come back to the lower chamber. Those changes also garnered support from Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, who had initially opposed the bill amid anger from first responders in his city.

“Has there been distrust? Yes,” Dallas Democratic Sen. Royce West, who carried the bill in the upper chamber, said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

But West also said that most first responder associations still support the bill with the Senate’s changes. West, Flynn and Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, praised each other for getting the highly personal and politicized legislation close to the finish line.

“This is yeoman’s work,” Huffines said.

Cassandra Pollock contributed to this report.

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