More than four years after Houston voters approved a measure that would grant firefighters equal pay with police officers, the legal battle to decide the referendum’s fate landed Tuesday in the hands of the Supreme Court of Texas.
The state’s highest justices heard oral arguments regarding Proposition B, the charter amendment pushed by the firefighters’ union and approved by voters in 2018. It would grant firefighters pay parity with police officers of a similar rank and seniority.
Justices also heard arguments in a similar case that stems from the city and union’s preceding contract stalemate.
It did not take long for the justices to probe the city’s divergent arguments in the two cases, which the fire union long has said conflict each other. One justice told attorneys representing the city they were operating on “a knife’s edge” between the two cases.
The court’s rulings, which likely will not be released for months, could have drastic consequences for the city’s roughly 3,900 firefighters, the annual City Hall budget and next year’s city elections. If it rules in favor of the union, it would give underpaid firefighters their biggest salary hikes in years, while introducing a hole in the city budget likely worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The long-running legal dispute has its roots in a contract stalemate dating back to 2017, when the latest pact between the city and firefighters expired. The two sides were unable to reach a new deal in negotiations and mediation, and they have been locked in contentious court battles since.
Voters approved Prop B, the pay parity measure, by a 59-to-41 margin in 2018, but the city and the police union have contested its legality. The city has not implemented the measure, although 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 whether equal pay with police would conflict with the existing framework to pay firefighters, enshrined in state law and adopted by Houston voters in 2003.
After voters approved Prop B, the city and police union argued its new standard, comparing pay to police officers, conflicts with the state standard that compares pay to the private sector. That would run afoul of the law’s preemption clause, they argued, and the Texas Constitution, which says cities cannot pass laws or charters that conflict with state law.
The city, however, has made an incompatible argument in the other case heard Tuesday, which was consolidated with the Prop B hearings before the Supreme Court. In that case, the city has argued there is no private comparison to firefighters. And it has contended that phrase of the state law is unconstitutional, along with the judicial mechanism to enforce it, which the firefighters have sought to use.
In the Prop B case, the city says the pay parity measure is blocked by the state law. In the other, it argues that state law is unconstitutional.
You can read on for the details. This is the consolidation of two different lawsuits. I suppose under other circumstances the city would have a bit more leeway to make these apparently divergent arguments. The law can be weird like that sometimes. If the firefighters win, it’s going to cost the city a lot of money, though the firefighters say it won’t be as much as the city claims. I hope we don’t have to find out. We’ll likely get a ruling sometime next year, and I’m sure all of the people now running for Mayor will be keeping a close eye on it.