HOUSTON - It was a reckoning before the State’s highest court five years in the making.
The City of Houston and the Police Union seeking to invalidate "Proposition B" – the 2018 voter-approved mandate granting firefighters the same pay as police.
"Then (the City) is having to comply with Prop B, which says firefighters are to be paid the same, in every single category of pay, as police officers without regard to the fact, the undisputed fact, that the working conditions of firefighters and police officers are materially different," said Reagan Brown, an attorney representing the City of Houston.
"The police union does have grave concerns about the impact of Prop B on the police officers' union’s ability to bargain for pay on behalf of its members," said Kelly Sandill, an attorney representing the Houston Police Officers Union.
Arguing for the firefighters, former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Phillips fired back, contending the City and its Police were attempting to thwart the express will of the people.
"The City has treated the people’s desire for fair firefighter pay like Lucy has treated Charlie Brown’s desire to kick the football," said Phillips.
On the second major issue before the high court, in which the City sought to invalidate the law governing collective bargaining, attorney William Boyce argued the judiciary should not, under the constitution, have the power to set wages when unions and municipalities can’t agree.
Phillips again fired back, suggesting that without the court’s authority hanging over local government, union employees prohibited from striking, would be shortchanged.
"Bargaining under the act would not be collective bargaining, but collective begging," said Phillips.
After the oral arguments, Firefighter Union Chief Marty Lancton stopped just short of declaring victory in one or potentially both of the cases.
"Every single step of the way we have said the will of the voters is what is right and should prevail, and I think what we saw today is the Justices asked the right questions and the end of the road is here," said Lancton.
Equally confident of prevailing, both the City and the police union predicted dire consequences if they don’t.
"What that means to the city is that it is going to threaten its finances," said Arturo Michel, City of Houston Attorney. "It’s going to have difficulty delivering services, including essential public services. There will likely be layoffs. There will be a restructuring of what happens at the city."
"We are battling here to make sure the city doesn’t go bankrupt because this here would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.2 to $1.5 billion that it would cost the city," said Doug Griffith, President of Houston Police Officer's Union.
The Texas Supreme Court is expected to issue rulings on both cases within 60 days.