The unanimous Texas House approval yesterday of a bail-out bill for the Dallas Police and Fire Pension fund sets up, among other things, the lowest point so far in the political career of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings. Every single thing he wanted in the bill he did not get, and every single thing he did not want he got shoved down his throat.
Public pension funds in Texas are creatures of the state and subject to legislative authority. Under this bill just passed, Dallas cannot walk on its pension fund.
Did Dallas want to? Apparently. The solution first floated by the mayor’s cadre, derided by the pension fund director as the “ice floe” solution, would have allowed the existing fund to die so it could be replaced with a cheaper one. What would have happened to the senior and already retired first responders and their families who were totally dependent on the old fund? Nobody wanted to say, of course, but the only possible interpretation was they would be put out on a chunk of ice and pushed off to sea without resources.
That can’t happen if this law makes it through the Senate in good form. Dallas will have to find a way to keep this fund alive, no matter what. The city won’t be able to put retired firefighters, cops and their families out on a chunk of ice and push them off to sea without pensions, Social Security or savings.
The bill headed now to the Senate would require Dallas to keep the promise it makes to first responders of a safe retirement. Rawlings put it quite differently, describing the bill as, “shackling the wrists of these taxpayers ‘til the second coming and not giving us control.” He said he was shocked by that, especially the part about being required to keep the fund alive.
“I’m just blown away by what is happening,” he said.
And, you know, yes, yes and yes on that, with the possible exception of the second coming. We will be bound to the promise of safe pensions, as we always have been. We’re not getting out of that one.
No, the bill does not allow the mayor to control the reconstituted pension fund, maybe because he has made it so clear (remember the ice floe) that he doesn’t feel especially honor bound to keep it afloat. And, yes, I’m sure he feels totally blown away by the entire legislative process and outcome, maybe because from the beginning he was so obviously unfamiliar, ill at ease and not good at it. It’s a big argument for hiring ad men to do your ads and politicians to do your politics.
He always seemed to be randomly running down there at the last minute to bitch and moan at the very legislators in whose hands the issue would ultimately reside. How is that even good salesmanship?
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, himself a consummate alumnus of the Legislature, sent his director of public policy and government affairs, Bill Kelly, to practically live in Austin while he shepherded Houston’ pension bail-out bill through the process.
Kelly is a summa cum laude graduate of the University of Houston Honors College, a former regional field manager for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, former political director for former Houston Mayor Bill White’s gubernatorial campaign and a former chief of staff for former state Representative Ellen Cohen, who is now a member of Houston City Council. In the capitol, Kelly knows how to find every bathroom, all the bathrooms.
Houston also went to Austin with a pension deal already about 85 percent worked out. They hit some minor bumps anyway, because bumps are in the nature of the legislative process. But it was nothing like what happened to Rawlings, who so far has been entirely left behind, shut out and bumfuzzled.
In fact, his frustration was on display this week in some ways that were downright disturbing. Wednesday night after the Texas House gave preliminary approval to its bill to shore up the fund, Rawlings went more or less postal in front of reporters at the airport.
Speaking of the city’s police officers and firefighters, the mayor said: “They have taken the citizens out in an alley and just pistol-whipped them.”
Pistol-whipped? The cops did that?
Earlier in the day, Rawlings had been telling reporters that the police and fire associations had “beat us up pretty bad” in the legislative process. That seemed OK. Beat us up pretty bad is fairly innocuous hyperbole. But later in the evening in a speech that just sounded unraveled, he switched to saying they had pistol-whipped the taxpayers.
In the same exchange at the airport the mayor went on to describe first responders as “shackling the wrists of the taxpayers.” So now the cops are pistol-whipping us, and then they’re shackling our wrists. Doesn’t sound like a slip of the tongue, does it?
In making those remarks, the mayor struck his heroic pose, the one I actually liked when he was preaching against domestic violence, but I found it quite confusing when he was preaching against the cops.
“This may be my Alamo,” he said of his opposition to the pension bailout. “There is no question. I mean, the deck is stacked against me. But I am going to focus on the Senate. I’m going to work on it. But if I go down, I’m going to go down like Colonel Travis for the taxpayers, OK?”
So are we talking about Col. (“Off the Pigs”) Travis? I don’t think I remember that one. I don’t think that’s the Travis who was at the real Alamo. I think the mayor is emulating somebody named Travis who may have been at the Alamo Motel.
And, look, more seriously, the mayor’s remarks about the cops gave me a serious case of ick for another reason. In those same few days, Dallas was dealing with a brutal gun attack on a first-responder – a paramedic shot down by a known hate-filled thug. And Balch Springs at that same time was struggling to come to grips with the grotesque fatal shooting of a 15-year-old top student by a cop who must have received his training from Somali pirates.
In both of those cases, when many people were riven by grief and, yes, probably also by wrath, most people kept their verbal cool. It was very noticeable.
The family of Jordan Edwards, the slain child, said in a statement: “We do not support nor do we condone any violence or threats made against the Balch Springs Police Department or any other law enforcement agencies.”
In response, Dominique Alexander, leader of the Next Generation Action Network, a high-profile local anti-police violence protest group, issued his own uncharacteristically muted statement: “We want to make sure that the community voices are heard,” Alexander said, “and stand with this family in their time of need, but also that the world and Dallas County knows that this is not an isolated incident”.
The mayor was not making his pistol-whipping remarks in a neutral atmosphere or moment. The terrible whip-saw effect of the firefighter ambush and the fatal shooting of a child by a cop had conspired to put the entire city in a vulnerable place emotionally. The one thing that expressed that vulnerability better than anything else was the care that people obviously were taking with their words. For once, maybe for a change, everybody was watching his damn mouth. Except the mayor.
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I do recognize that a lot of people really hate the idea, as it has been presented to them, that they personally are being required to bail out the cops and firefighters, who they have been told have been living high on the hog. But the fact that people even have that story in their heads is reflective of a huge failure of leadership.
Mayor Turner in Houston never took that kind of us-against-them zero-sum approach. He pursued a solution instead the same way strong families do, as a mutual effort and sacrifice whose only goal must be the well-being and security of all. Candor, yes. Throat-slitting, no. We need more of Turner’s kind of leadership here.
Oh, and in case you think I'm going a little hard on our mayor, here is a statement issued yesterday by Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, chairman of the House Pension Committee, author of the Dallas pension bill:
Chairman Flynn Responds to Dallas Mayor Comments
AUSTIN- "After hearing of comments made by the Dallas Mayor following a unanimous 132-0 vote in support of Dallas Police and Fire Pension reforms, I am disappointed in his insistence on attacking the Legislature, which is not sound business or political policy. This does not represent the best the city of Dallas has to offer. The contention that this is a 'taxpayer bailout' is both wrong and inflammatory. Owning up to one's moral and ethical responsibilities is simply the right thing to do. The 10,000 Dallas Police and Fire members, retirees and their families deserve better. In light of the tragedies of the past few months, Dallas deserves to have a public safety presence on the street – especially following the most recent attack on the Dallas firefighter. The city has been afforded the opportunity several times to offer a solution that will provide security and safety to those 10,000 members but has so far only agreed to fund the plan on a limited basis of seven years. Police and fire deserve a more secure future, and limited funding does nothing but reinforce what many feel has been the desire to kill the plan and start a new one – stranding several thousand members with no pension at all. This is without a doubt an extremely serious issue for the city of Dallas, the state and the Legislature and should be dealt with with equally serious intentions. True leaders would own up to the moral and ethical responsibilities Dallas has and we ask once again that the city of Dallas do so."