Monday, June 08, 2015

Third mayoral forum ignites on pensions

Mike Morris at the Chron's piece on Saturday's third debate hits the mark for comprehensive detail on the policies as well as the political jousting.

All seven top-tier candidates vying for term-limited Mayor Annise Parker's chair this fall appeared at a forum Saturday morning focused on labor and workers' rights.

The questions often revealed little distance among the hopefuls, and, indeed, a few noted it would be tough to find a Houston mayoral candidate opposed to comprehensive immigration reform or living wages for workers.

All the candidates said they support those issues, as well as worker training programs and improved access to health care, two other questions posed by forum panelists. All seven candidates shared at least some level of concern about issues such as gentrification and low voter turnout.

The one question to generate any fireworks was a predictable one: Whether the candidates support keeping and funding the defined benefit pension plan for municipal workers.

There's been prior coverage of Sylvester Turner's hand in breaking the retirement program logjam a few months ago.  That and his frontrunning status made him the target.  Chris Bell even leapt to his defense after tirades from Ben Hall, Bill King, and Steven Costello.

Hall, King and Costello all took swipes at Turner on pensions, prompting Bell to draw a sustained laugh from the crowd when he quipped, "Don't worry Sylvester, I'll protect you."

The executive summary of the discussion by Morris, from the end of his article.

Here are some highlights of what the candidates said about economic inequality, workers' rights and affordable housing:
  • Bell said at least twice that he would put a labor liaison on his executive staff as mayor and also stressed the need to address growing economic inequality in Houston. "If we don't address this issue we're going to continue to have a city of haves versus have-nots," he said.
  • Costello focused several times on worker training. He advocated the use of "best value" rather than "low bid" selections in city contracting to enable the city to better penalize irresponsible companies that cut corners. On affordable housing, he advocated for the city to provide more incentives to developers to avoid gentrification, and for similar efforts creating an affordable district for artists.
  • Garcia: Touted his efforts while on City Council to get vaccines to Latino kids in his district when he learned his district had one of the city's lowest immunization rates. He focused heavily on affordable housing and gentrification, and said the city must find ways to prevent citizens from paying for their neighbors' investments in their own taxes.
  • Hall said he would give preference in city contracting to companies that provide apprenticeships and said he would pursue policies to "grandfather" existing homes in gentrifying areas to prevent residents from being pushed out.
  • King said he would work to increase the number of and funding for Federally Qualified Health Centers, and would evaluate whether city clinics unnecessarily duplicate services with county clinics. He said any contractor caught stealing workers' wages should be fired and banned from doing business with the city.
  • McVey said because the Legislature has blocked the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, the city should seek a way to get payments directly from Washington. McVey also called for more urban planning, with a focus on preventing gentrification.
  • Turner touted his support in the Legislature for expanding a health insurance program for impoverished youth and for increased funding for trauma centers, and took issue with an expansive subsidy program launched under Parker to pay developers $15,000 per apartment or condominium built downtown; "It's about time we pushed that to the neighborhoods," he said.

There's enough there for everybody to find something they like and something they don't.  I'll digest this, along with what I gathered from coverage of the first and second mayoral forums last week, and present some thoughts about the current status of the mayor's race in a forthcoming post.

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