AUSTIN — Efforts to save the failing Dallas Police and Fire Pension System from insolvency have taken months of lobbying, tense negotiations, legal action and fiery rhetoric. The city’s credit ratings have dropped several times. Hundreds of police officers and firefighters have walked out the door, along with hundreds of millions of dollars from the pension system.
But on Wednesday, it took fewer than 10 minutes for the state House of Representatives to give its unanimous approval to a bill designed to bolster it.
"The vote clearly shows the amount of work we put into this thing," said Dallas Fire Fighters Association President Jim McDade. "I don’t even think we expected unanimous."
The House’s preliminary approval is another step in a long process to keep the once-heralded retirement fund from going broke within 10 years. The formal vote to send the bill to the Senate is expected Thursday. The bill’s author, State Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, said he will not "dance in the end zone until after the game."
But the floor vote Wednesday was an important one — a symbolic and overwhelming show of support amid plenty of rancor surrounding the system’s future and the bill.
The bill cuts active police and firefighters’ benefits and asks them to pay more of their paychecks, limits future benefit increases for retirees and commits the city’s taxpayers to paying additional money into the system. Mayor Mike Rawlings has pushed for changes to the bill to ensure that the city isn’t tied to forever paying an escalating minimum payment.
Rawlings has called the payment provision a "taxpayer bailout." The city already pays more than $120 million a year into the system.
The escalating minimum amount is meant to give the system a steady revenue stream to ensure its solvency, no matter how many officers and firefighters the city has on its roster. However, it also makes it more difficult for the city to start a new retirement fund because it is tied to paying into the old one.
City Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates, who serves on the pension board, said legislators aren’t being honest with the public about what will happen after the bill passes. She echoed the mayor’s concerns.
"This bill is an unfunded mandate that can lead to an increase in taxes or a reduction of services," she said. "If that needs to be done to save the pension, they need to be transparent with that."
Rawlings and other city officials’ stance on the issue has drawn the ire of police and fire groups in recent weeks. They marched on City Hall last week and blasted the mayor repeatedly, saying his goal is to collapse the pension system and leave thousands of police and firefighters without a pension.
Flynn said the city needs to pay its share of the pension obligations.
"It’s not a bailout," he said. "It’s a recognition of the responsibility that needs to be there."
Despite the public squabble in recent weeks, Flynn struck a more conciliatory tone toward the mayor after the vote.
"The mayor is looking after the people he serves," Flynn said.
The only change to Flynn’s bill was a small but consequential amendment offered by state Rep. Jason Villalba, R-North Dallas. The bill previously said the next board "shall consider" a plan to pursue a scheme to recuperate some of the lucrative benefits that had already been paid or credited to retired and active officers and firefighters. Villalba changed the wording to "may consider" instead.
Flynn said he hopes his bill will be a "a plan that others understand and accept as a template for future pension plans."
But the bill is not out of the House just yet. Flynn said he was considering some amendments offered late Wednesday afternoon by State Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas. Many of them are meant to save the city money. Flynn said his office has already considered some of the issues that Davis had raised and decided against including them in the bill. Changes appear unlikely at this point before it reaches the Senate.
The debate in the Senate could be a different story. The Senate recently passed a bill to fix Houston’s much different pension problems — but added an amendment that allows them to switch to a different type of retirement plan.
And the Senate is also expected to deal with finalizing the governance of a new Dallas Police and Fire Pension System board of trustees. The board will be split 50-50 between police and firefighters’ appointees and representatives of the city, with an eleventh person to be chosen jointly. Rawlings wants to make sure that seat is filled, and has suggested that a state official get to appoint the trustee if the two sides can’t agree on someone within 60 days.
State Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, said he believes it will go well in the Senate. And he wants all sides to be represented in the process despite all the acrimony.
"This is not about passing a law. This is about implementing a law," said Roberto Alonzo, D-Oak Cliff. "And we all have to work together to make it happen."