Among the many low-key but potentially damaging measures being considered by the Texas Legislature is House Bill 2608, filed by state Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, to address budget problems in the state’s largest city.
Members of the Texas Association of Public Employees Retirement Systems oppose the Houston bill. It would radically and detrimentally alter the structure of pensions in other cities around the state.
HB 2608 is simple in intent: It would eliminate the Legislature’s review of retirement benefits changes that cities and their pensions work out for their local police, firefighters and municipal employees.
Proponents say the Legislature interferes in city affairs and that HB 2608 gives the people paying local taxes “a clear voice” in how their pension system operates.
But is any of that true?
A good many local pensions, with the help of their city governments, sought decades ago to enshrine city and employee contribution rates, retirement age benefit formulas and cost-of-living adjustments in state code.
Mayors and city councils have fleeting political and budget goals in the long life of a city. Pensions, on the other hand, are built with long-term returns in mind.
They calculate hard financial mathematics every day to ensure that their investments will meet future retirement benefits. In Texas, roughly 60 percent of pension benefits are created from investment returns.
While local elections and competing budget priorities among council members might resemble a tennis match, the pensions are playing chess.
And so it was that many pensions and cities came to set their pension operations in state law, so that only when the city council, the pension, retirees, unions and city staff came to consensus would the Legislature be asked to vote and approve changes to their governing documents.
Beyond that, the Legislature plays no role in the local affairs of Texas pensions.
Given that our pensions are among the best performing in the nation, the system has worked well.
So along comes HB 2608, attempting to persuade a majority of legislators that the problems being experienced in Houston warrant wholesale change to the structure of pensions across Texas.
In our view, Houston’s problems with its pensions didn’t stem from involving the Legislature. Decades ago, various leaders began short-changing the pensions of the money they needed to remain actuarially viable.
At first the pensions went along, accepting the city’s promises for re-payment. As time went on, and the city kept digging holes, the pensions balked at accepting any more “deals” that served the city’s short-term budget goals, but ignored the long-term liabilities of their pensions.
TEXPERS keeps an eye on the investment performance of local pensions. Our yearly research shows most pensions, when given a chance by their cities, do a great job of earning the investment returns needed to keep the promises their city makes to public employees.
Only when cities balk at honoring their commitments do pensions get in trouble, such as has happened in Houston.
HB 2608 should be opposed because of what we know of local pensions that have “local control.”
Those are the cities whose budgets often fail. Nothing is more tempting to mayors and councils than promising unsustainable benefits to large, motivated city employee groups — the ones who vote.
While the proponents of HB 2608 suggest that city governments will manage their finances responsibly through “local control,” experience doesn’t support their contention.
Keep the current system of checks and balances that has worked so well across Texas. Oppose HB 2608.
Max Patterson is executive director of the Texas Association of Public Employees Retirement Systems.