As Texas legislators looked for ways to close the state’s $20+ billion budget deficit, cutting the pay of state workers moved to the top of the priority list for some legislators. One of the proposals, HB 3168 authored by Rep. Bill Callegari, a Republican from Katy near Houston, would have eliminated longevity pay, extra pay that rewards length of service. Another bill, HB 2720, would have authorized state agencies and universities to furlough workers one day a month to save money.
The longevity bill would have cost veteran state workers between $200 and $400 a month; furloughs without pay as proposed by HB 2720 would have cut pay for those affected by as much as 5 percent a year.
But thanks to the efforts of members of the Texas State Employees Union, CWA Local 6186 both proposals were defeated. “It wasn’t easy,” said TSEU political director Derrick Osobase. “Each time we thought we killed both bills, the language in the bills would turn up in other bills, but each time they did, TSEU members made hundreds of phone calls to lawmakers, and both proposals failed to pass.”
Take for instance HB 2720, the furlough bill. It was authored by Rep. Jim Pitts, the chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. It reappeared in several forms throughout the regular and special legislative session. When it finally died for good in the special session, Osobase told union members, “Legislators told me that they received hundreds of phone calls in opposition to the furlough amendment, which led the author to withdraw it. TSEU was the only state employee organization to oppose this amendment and actually work against it.”
HB 2720 got its first committee hearing less than a month after it was filed. TSEU was the only employee organization to testify against the bill at the hearing; another employee organization took a neutral position.
When it looked like HB 2720 wouldn’t make it out of committee, its language was inserted into another bill, which the committee reported out and sent to the Calendars Committee, which sets the daily House agenda, where it died
But the furlough proposal received new life in June when a new furlough bill was filed during the special session of the Legislature. When it looked like the bill wouldn’t make it out of committee, its supporters tried to insert it into SB 1, the main focus of the special session, but that effort failed.
The defeat of the furlough bill was significant because the idea of saving money by furloughing public sector workers has been gaining traction throughout the US. Todd Hagerty a policy associate with the National Council of State Legislators told the Austin American Statesman that more than half of the states in US passed furlough bills in 2010 and most extended the program in 2011.
The attempt to cut longevity pay also died several deaths only to be reborn in new forms as the session progressed. Currently, Texas state employees receive an additional $20 a month after two years of service and an additional $20 for every two years of service after that.
A committee hearing on HB 3168, the first shot at cutting longevity pay, was held in early April. In addition to the cuts in longevity pay, the bill contained technical amendments to statutes governing state employee personnel issues. Supporters expected it to sail through the committee intact, but all state employee organizations opposed this bill, and committee members started getting phone calls about it; consequently, it was put on hold while supporters tried to shore up support.
After awhile, it became clear that HB 3168 couldn’t get out of committee if it retained the longevity pay cuts, so longevity pay language was stripped from the bill, which was then reported out of committee.
Supporters trotted out HB 2954, a stand-alone longevity pay cut bill to take HB 3168’s place, but it died in committee for lack of support. There was one last attempt to include a temporary cut to longevity pay in an important bill being considered on the Senate floor during the last days of the regular session, but it too failed.
The efforts of TSEU members played a big role in the defeat of both efforts to cut state employee pay. “TSEU can’t afford to hire high-priced lobbyist, so we have to rely on our organized and mobilized members to make our voice heard,” Osobase said.