‘Day of Reckoning’ for Houston Firefighters
Nov. 29—More than 4 years after Houston voters authorised a measure that may have given firefighters equal pay with cops, the authorized battle to resolve the referendum’s destiny heads to the Texas Supreme Court.
The state’s highest courtroom will hear oral arguments Tuesday morning on Proposition B, the constitution modification pushed by the firefighters union and authorised by voters in 2018. It would give firefighters pay parity with officers of police with comparable rank and seniority. The Supreme Court will even hear arguments in an identical case stemming from the earlier city-union contract deadlock.
Her choices on these instances, which aren’t anticipated Tuesday, are more likely to have drastic penalties for the town’s roughly 3,900 firefighters, the town’s annual price range and subsequent yr’s metropolis election.
The firefighters union has billed Tuesday’s listening to as a “day of reckoning” that may expose the town’s conflicting arguments in each instances. Ultimately, the union hopes the excessive courtroom will uphold the desire of the voters from 2018.
“The vote of the people is a sacred thing, yet the city has shown no respect for it, spending millions of taxpayer dollars over the years on these two cases,” stated Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Firefighters Association. “Now, there is nowhere for them to turn or hide.
Meanwhile, Mayor Sylvester Turner and his administration have argued that the costs of implementing the pay equity measure — which could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars — would be financially devastating to the city.
“If Houston doesn’t prevail within the Prop B case, the numerous monetary burden will threaten the town’s funds and its means to offer companies,” said City Attorney Arturo Michel. “It will pressure vital structural modifications within the fireplace division and lead to a discount in personnel from departments throughout the town, together with police and fireplace.”
Background: Before Prop B was struck, Houston issued layoff notices to 220 firefighters
The long legal dispute is rooted in a contract impasse that dates back to 2017, when the last contract between the city and firefighters expired. The two sides were unable to agree on a new one after negotiations and mediation, and they have been embroiled in contentious court battles ever since.
Shortly after voters passed the pay equity measure by a 59-41 margin in 2018, the police union and city challenged the charter change in court. They won a trial judge’s ruling in 2019 that the measure violated the Texas Constitution by superseding state law governing how firefighters are paid. An appeals court overturned that decision last summer. The city has not implemented the measure, although the City Council has given firefighters 6 percent raises in each of the last two budgets, with a promise to do so again next year.
The Prop B case centers on this question: Do firefighter pay standards set forth in state law preempt a new local standard introduced by the charter amendment? State law requires firefighters to be paid substantially equal to their counterparts in private sector employment. Prop B requires them to be paid at least equally to their police counterparts.
The city and police union have argued that the standard supersedes the one adopted by the state, and therefore it violates a clause in the Texas Constitution that says cities cannot pass ordinances inconsistent with state law.
The 14th Circuit Court of Appeals, however, said they can coexist. Justice Meagan Hassan wrote that courts are supposed to strike down local laws only when they are unmistakably preempted by state law. And adopting a new salary standard from the charter amendment, she wrote, simply puts a “compensation flooring” on firefighters. State standards, which compare pay to private employment, can “additional outline firefighter compensation to the extent that it exceeds that flooring.” Since laws don’t always exist in conflict, Hassan wrote, Prop B can live.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Ken Wise said the hypothetical scenario does not bear out in reality. The current situation, he said, is that “these two requirements aren’t at present equal,” and he said Prop B should be repealed. The city and police union hope the Supreme Court will adopt his logic.
The fire union believes it has another advantage: The city, it says, is arguing against itself. The Prop B case has been consolidated into arguments with a separate case about the union’s wage dispute with the city, originally filed before Prop B’s passage.
After the two sides reached an impasse, the firefighters filed a lawsuit in district court to resolve the dispute, using a process set forth in state law. In it, the union argued that the city was not meeting its legal requirements to pay firefighters in a manner that is comparable to private sector workers.
The city has argued, in response, by challenging two key tenets of the state’s collective bargaining law: the comparable standard of employment in the private sector and the judicial enforcement mechanism the fire union is using. City attorneys argue that both are unconstitutional because they delegate a legislative function to a court and fail to provide sufficient standards to guide its discretion.
In one case, the city is arguing that Prop B violates the state’s private employment standard. In another, he argues that the standard is unconstitutional. On Tuesday, the union says, city attorneys will have to argue both points in one setting.
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