Monday, September 28, 2015

Houston union money blocks pension reform

By Jon Cassidy,

The answer to Houston’s $13 billion dollar pension crisis is quite simple.

It’s right there in a bill by state Rep. Jim Murphy, just 293 words returning control of 13 pension funds, including Houston’s, to the cities that pay for them.

If only state lawmakers wanted to give up their authority and local officials wanted it back. And if the employee unions that support them decided they didn’t really want such generous pensions.

Simple, right?

In 48 other states, pension reform is complicated. Court rulings there have created pension guarantees that range from nearly bankruptcy-proof at the low end all the way up to Ark of the Covenant levels of untouchability.

But in Texas, if Murphy’s 293 words became law, Houston’s public employees would suddenly be at the mercy of city officials. Even vested benefits could disappear.

In most states, municipal pensions are handled by local officials through a collective bargaining process. But in Texas, the Legislature seized control of the biggest local funds in 1989 and started dictating pension terms to local governments.

The unions, in turn, seized control of the lawmakers.

Over the past two election cycles, the Houston firefighter and police local unions have donated $443,000 and $290,000, respectively, to state lawmakers, more than the next four unions — all state teacher associations — combined, according to records maintained by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Aside from teachers’ groups lobbying against school choice, there’s really only one major labor controversy in Texas: the Houston unions, whose best deal pays firefighters retiring after 30 years an average of 94 percent of their final salary, plus a one-time payout of between $700,000 and $1 million, one of the most generous payouts in the country.

Unfortunately for Murphy and his bill, there isn’t much of a dispute. Public sector unions have purchased support from the far left to the far right.

Pro-union Republican Speaker Joe Straus leads all lawmakers over the past two cycles, with $144,250.

Seven of the next 10 names on the list are Houston-area lawmakers: Sens. John Whitmire, Joan Huffman, and Sylvia Garcia, and Reps. Carol Alvarado, Garnet Coleman, Sylvester Turner, and Alma Allen (career totals linked to names; two-cycle totals here).

Huffman, who chairs the Senate committee overseeing pensions, is the only Republican of the seven. In the latest session, Huffman’s committee refused to grant a hearing to a companion to Murphy’s bill filed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the man who gave Huffman her chair, pulled in $81,990 from public sector unions over the past two cycles, $52,500 of it coming from Houston police and firefighters.

The dynamics are as simple as they are discouraging. Austin refuses to take responsibility for municipal pension troubles, even though costs and benefit levels are set by state law.

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