New Orleans firefighters bill causes controversy in La House

A fight between the New Orleans firefighters and the city’s mayor caused the unusual occurrence Thursday in the Louisiana Legislature of a committee chairman having his bill tabled.

The House soundly rejected an effort Thursday to advance a competing vehicle for addressing problems with the New Orleans Firefighters Retirement System.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu is at odds with firefighters on his bid to lower the cost to the city of the pension fund. The fund currently costs the city roughly $50 million a year.

The House has already advanced House Bill 42, which delves into how retirement benefits are calculated for firefighters. Firefighters’ final average retirement compensation would be based on their highest five consecutive years of employment instead of their highest four years. The bill would decrease firefighters’ benefits.

State Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, offered HB42, which is awaiting action in the state Senate.

On Thursday, state Rep. Kevin Pearson tried to also move his House Bill 49 to the Senate.

Pearson, R-Slidell, said the two bills are identical. He is chairman with the House Retirement committee.

“Why move two bills?” asked state Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite.

Pearson said he wanted to ensure that a solution materializes before the session ends in three weeks.

Negotiations are taking place behind the scenes on the final draft of the solution. With two bills in play, the parties would have two legislators to lobby on their arguments.

Pearson said the firefighter retirement system is fraught with problems, including credit card spending by board members. “We may inherit this system one day if we don’t take strong action,” he said.

Arnold objected to Pearson’s move, saying the city and firefighters are at opposite sides of a stick while trying to find the middle ground.

He said he will not push for changes in the Senate that are not agreed upon by both sides of the issue.

“I’ve never broken a promise,” Arnold said.

Arnold’s pushed to kill Pearson’s HB49 by “tabling” it. The parliamentary maneuver of “tabling” would require a two-thirds vote to consider the legislation again. Pearson offered a counter motion to “return the bill to the calendar,” which would allow the measure to be considered without a vote of the full House.

The Louisiana House rejected Pearson’s counter motion with 15 voting to “return the bill to the calendar” and 76 voting against the maneuver.

The chamber then voted 81-9 in favor of tabling the bill.

Afterwards, Pearson said few committee chairmen have their legislation defeated so soundly. He shrugged, saying he understood why New Orleans legislators would shy from carrying legislation so passionately supported by some constituents.

“You don’t want to get yourself in the position of having every firefighter and their families angry at you and promising to vote against you,” Pearson said about why he, a Slidell native, was handling legislation on a New Orleans issue.

Ultimately, problems with firefighters’ pension plan will be dealt with by the state’s taxpayers, Pearson said. Systemic changes, which are opposed by New Orleans firefighters, will be necessary to keep the retirement system viable into the future, he said.

“We’re still going to have the same management with the same power, making the same economic decisions the same way, even though those decisions, in the past, have been awful,” Pearson said.

Hopefully, the necessary changes can be amended into Arnold’s bill that is on the Senate side, Pearson said.