Houston pension fights escalate, spark debates

With only seven weeks left in the legislative session and as a collection of pension bills are poised to hit the floors of both the Texas Senate and House, Houston pension leaders and elected officials have yet to get on the same page on a multi-billion dollar retirement pension shortfall.

The disagreements over how best to move forward are now spurring spinoff debates involving whether to dramatically overhaul future public retirements in Houston.

Lawmakers, city officials and pension members vow to press on in behind-the-scenes negotiations aimed at quelling some of the acrimony.

“It will be more of the same for the near future,” Houston fire pension chair David Keller told members in an email. “Back and forth to Austin. Back and forth with lawmakers.”

The Houston fire pension fund opposes both the House and Senate bills that aim to shore up the city’s shortfalls. The vast majority of unfunded pension liabilities in Houston come not from the firefighters’ pension but from the municipal employee retirement fund and police pension system, according to credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s.

The municipal and police systems respectively have 48 percent and 62 percent of the money they are expected to pay out to retirees over coming decades according to S&P. The firefighter fund, meanwhile, has about 81 percent of the money it needs to cover future pension costs. That puts it among the best funded pension funds in the state.

Firefighter pension members said that the two bills working through the legislature would lower their benefits in order to save the city money that could be spent helping shore up the municipal and police funds.

“Talk about punishing success,” Keller told members in his email.

City officials, though, blame squabbles over access to the firefighter fund’s financial data for the plan enshrined in current legislation.

“In the absence of the data from the fire pension system, we had no choice but to move forward with our own projections about what it will cost to provide future benefits for fire retirees,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in an opinion piece submitted to media last month.

The Houston shortfalls in the police and municipal funds partially stems from years in which those respective boards agreed to let the city underfund its own contributions to the pensions. The firefighters didn’t strike such a deal.

To repay the underfunded amounts, the city plans to issue $1 billion in pension obligation bonds and give $750 million to the police pension and $250 million to the municipal system.

City Hall and both of those pension funds are on board with the plan, though the Senate passed a potentially problematic bill in March that could require voters to approve issuing the bonds. Scores of Houston business leaders have been lobbying lawmakers to include that election requirement to the legislature’s pension fix but it’s a provision Turner adamantly opposes.

Bill King, who opposed Turner in the 2015 Houston mayoral race, is among that group of Houston leaders at odds with Turner on this issue. They also want any pension fix to require that future employees be given defined contribution plans akin to 401ks instead of defined benefit plans like pensions.

King said pensions are throwbacks to a time when interest rates were higher and life expectancy was shorter. He said there are too many variables for any pension entity to accurately know how much money it’s going to need now to pay retirement benefits for the next four or five decades.

The Texas Tribune contributed to this report.