Sunday, May 28, 2017

Texas Senate passes bill overhauling Houston's troubled pension systems

This piece illuminates the very serious implications of SB2190 that is currently on the governor's desk awaiting his signature.  It primarily affects Houston where the city is currently facing shortfalls to the tune of $8 billion with respect to its police, firefighter and municipal employee pension funds.  

A crisis indeed, but the policy "remedy" that SB2190 represents is a slippery slope for other cities that may decide to take this route, and a portent of bad things to come, specifically, for Houston firefighters.  I heard through the grape vine that they'll file suit, though, so that's a good thing.  It nevertheless concerns us all as a state.

This May 1, 2017 piece by Brandon Formby of the Texas Tribune provides important detail to SB2190 that you can read about here below.  You can also get important additional detail on shifts from defined to contribution (401K or 401K-like) plans in other areas of the country from my April 13, 2017 blog post titled, 

SB 2190 Could Be Bad News for Public Education: This Would KILL our already injured, hobbling profession... 

This new title reflects the current information I have (formerly, it was "SB 2190 is Bad News for Public Education: This will KILL our already injured, hobbling profession...").

So while this struggle is specific to Houston fire fighters and their pension plans, it has potentially profound implications for other areas of state government, including education.  These neoliberal, greedy, and individualistic privatizers are powerful and relentless.

A highly knowledgeable person I know who works in pensions and prefers to remain anonymous shared with me that a 401K-like, contribution benefit plan (described as an "alternative" to time-honored, defined benefit plans) are very much in the works for education as we speak. Our public schools make these vultures hungry.  Never mind that these our hard-earned, taxpayer dollars that they are after.

In fact, Sen. Joan Huffman (R-District 17) is calling for pensions as an interim legislative charge.  How convenient, especially now that—over Sen. Royce West's objection who was absent on the day when the action happened—none other than Josh B. McGee, former vice president of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, squeaked through to top-government post to now chair the Texas Pension Review Board.  You can't make this stuff up!

While this story is not going in the right direction for Texas right now, we still do have a vote.  I would hope that all state employees in Huffman's district make this their cause celebré and get her voted out in favor of a leader that truly represents not just "their interests," but most particularly their right to a decent retirement after a career of serving the public.  Even if you're not a state employee, you are still a tax payer.  And defined benefit plans are beneficial and fair not just for the individuals directly impacted, but also the public at large. 

I'll take the liberty of quoting myself here from my updated April 13, 2017 blog post piece, too:

A longer-term agenda for our community and organizations is to upgrade our civic capacity in this arcane policy realm of pension plans. I know less than a handful of people and organizations that advocate in this area. Civil rights groups and the nonprofit sector, educational advocacy organizations, etc. need to step up to the plate. Thankfully, one such organization is Texas Association of Public Employee Retirement Systems (TEXPERS):

Not sure who in academia is keeping track of these things either. Of all the volumes of education research and policy analysis that I read and come across, I simply do not see much at all on pension plans. Perhaps folks in public management are on top of this....

In any case, we all need to up our game on this. Myself, included. I'll of course continue sharing what I learn.

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick himself said: "I cannot think of a more challenging bill in my 11 years in the Senate." 

Read why below—and then do something about it.

Angela Valenzuela

Texas Senate passes bill overhauling Houston's troubled pension systems

On a 25-5 vote, the Texas Senate passed a bill aimed at overhauling Houston's troubled pension funds. The bill's author also added a provision that could shift future employees to new retirement system if shortfalls worsen or persist.

State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, during a meeting of the Senate State Affairs Committee on March 27, 2017. 
State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, during a meeting of the Senate State Affairs Committee on March 27, 2017.
Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune
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Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

Texas Senators overwhelmingly passed a bill Monday that aims to overhaul Houston’s troubled pension funds, but not before including a last-minute amendment that could switch future first responders and City Hall employees to a new kind of retirement system.
The Senate passed Senate Bill 2190 in a 25-5 vote. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick praised the work of the bill's author, State Sen. Joan Huffman. The Houston Republican spent months working with Houston city officials, police officers, firefighters and city employees in an effort to rewrite the statute that governs the city’s severely underfunded pension systems. Her bill was at least loosely based on a plan that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner worked on with the three employee groups.
"I cannot think of a more challenging bill in my 11 years in the Senate," Patrick said.
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But the city’s firefighters opposed the legislation because, they said, it required too many cuts to features of their benefits even though their fund is not in nearly as bad a shape as the police and municipal funds. Huffman said from the Senate floor Monday that she made tweaks in the bill that aims to at least partially appease firefighters.
“Although progress was made, it is my understanding the firefighters do not support this bill,” Huffman said.
Houston fire pension chairman David Keller said in a prepared statement Monday afternoon that the benefit features cut from that fund to help the city afford its contributions to all three pension systems could prompt firefighters to leave the department. He also said that could exacerbate existing problems in the firefighters' fund in the same way that Dallas’ pension fund has been bombarded by asset losses.
“There, the anticipation of future benefit cuts caused waves of early retirements, forced liquidations of immature assets, and a spiraling decline of pension fund balances,” Keller said.
Huffman amended her bill so that if the police or fire systems have less than 65 percent of the money they will need to cover future retirement costs after 2021, new employees will have to go on a different kind of retirement plan called a cash balance plan. If the municipal fund isn’t funded at 60 percent after 2027, those city employees will also have to shift future employees to the new retirement plan.
Currently, the city's police system is funded at 62 percent, the firefighter fund at 81 percent and the municipal fund at 48 percent, according to credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s.
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A cash balance plan can be similar to a pension, but instead of money being pooled into one large fund, each employee has their own separate account. But it was unclear Monday if such plans would be pooled or not if Houston is eventually required to use them.
"We did leave some flexibility for the city and the pensions to develop the fine details," Huffman said after Monday's vote.
Houston leaders last week said no such plan was offered to police, firefighters or municipal employees while they were negotiating a pension reform plan with city officials. They said they didn’t know enough about the idea to support it so late in the legislative session. But Turner on Monday praised passage of the bill in a prepared statement. 
“Studies are still out on whether they will work in the long run,” Huffman said Monday of cash balance plans. “The beauty is there's certainty in the cost to the city and the taxpayers.”
The idea for the cash balance plan came from some Houston business leaders worried that Turner’s plan would not adequately shore up the shortfalls and would lead to cuts in city services or employee layoffs.
“It only kicks in if his plan doesn't work,” said Houston investment manager Chris Zook.
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, had wanted to amend the bill to let Houston voters decide whether the city should send all future employees to defined contribution plans, like 401(k)s. That’s a highly controversial idea among first responders who say that the promise of dependable pensions is something cities have long used to keep from paying them higher salaries.
Bettencourt said Monday that he liked the cash balance plan idea because it would end the use of costly pension funds if the current financial crisis doesn’t ebb.
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“It’s a recognition of the obvious,” he said.

Missed payments and growing debt 

Houston faces more than $8 billion in shortfalls in its police, firefighter and municipal employee pension funds. But credit ratings agency Moody’s estimates the unfunded liabilities exceed $10 billion. That firm ranked Houston as having the nation’s fourth worst pension shortfall when unfunded liabilities were compared to the annual operating revenues.
Those shortfalls are far worse in the police and municipal employee funds than in the firefighter retirement fund. The unfunded liabilities in the police and municipal systems stem from years in which those respective board agreed to let the city underfund its pension contributions. City officials estimate they now owe the police fund $750 million and the municipal employee fund $250 million.
To repay those underfunded amounts, the city plans to issue $1 billion in pension obligation bonds. But the Senate in March passed a bill that could complicate that plan because it would require voters to approve a city’s attempt to take on bond debt to fill pension funds. Huffman's bill also includes a provision saying that if voters reject pension obligation bonds, the benefit cuts that employees agreed to will not go into effect. 

Budget woes ahead 

Houston is already facing a $90 to $100 million shortfall in its budget that has to be approved by the end of next month. In July, when Houston's 2018 fiscal year begins, the city will have to pay $130 million into the police retirement fund. If pension reform legislation goes through, the city plans to quickly issue its $1 billion in planned bonds to avoid draining $130 million from its general fund. If the city has to use its the general fund for that payment, it will create a $220 to $240 million budget shortfall that will lead to layoffs for city employees, including police officers and firefighters, according to Turner.
“No group of employees is going to go unscathed in this process,” Turner said at a press conference last week.
Houston officials have warned that a shortage in first responders will lead to higher crime rates and lower response times throughout the city. Houston fire chief Samuel Peña said at a press conference last week that his department wouldn’t be able to respond as quickly to car wrecks, house fires or medical emergency.
“We are already strained to the max as far as being able to provide the service that this community has come to expect,” he said.

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