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Greg Abbott’s pension board pick draws protests from labor

Gov. Greg Abbott’s choice to lead the Texas Pension Review Board has drawn sharp criticism from labor organizations that equated the appointment to a betrayal of trust by the governor.

Abbott tapped Josh McGee on Monday, lauding the Houston economist as a leading national expert on retirement policy — a fine fit for a board that reviews the health of public retirement systems, studies potential problems and recommends solutions.

A dozen labor groups representing police and firefighters, however, quickly called on Abbott to rescind the appointment, calling McGee one of the state’s harshest critics of public pensions.

“This appointment is a serious threat to the livelihood of officers who sacrifice so much for the people of Texas,” said Charley Wilkison, executive director of one of those groups, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, which endorsed Abbott in his race for governor. “We are deeply disappointed that the governor did not reach out to law enforcement before making this ill-advised appointment.”

McGee’s appointment also caught retired teachers by surprise, said Tim Lee, executive director of the Texas Retired Teachers Association.

“It was shocking,” Lee said. “He’s the worst possible choice to be chairman of the Pension Review Board. We look at this and say, ‘How in the world did he get on the radar of Gov. Abbott?’ Our members tend to like the governor. That’s what’s so surprising.”

McGee’s appointment will require Senate approval during the next legislative session, which begins in January 2017, and Lee predicted strong opposition.

“The guy, in my view, is nothing but an advocate for eliminating the plans that our public workers have,” Lee said. “Our members know their senators personally. They are going to be very vocal and very disappointed.”

An Abbott spokesman declined to comment on the opposition, choosing to let Monday’s announcement of McGee’s appointment to speak for itself.

That announcement noted that McGee is a vice president for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation — a private organization with offices in Houston, New York and Washington, D.C., that presses for reforms in criminal justice, education and pension systems. Abbott’s office said that McGee also is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a free-market advocacy organization that favors welfare reform, tort reform and supply-side tax policies.

McGee wasn’t available for comment, said Leila Walsh, spokeswoman for the Arnold Foundation, who provided links to reports in which McGee has called for governments to keep their pension promises while adopting comprehensive, sustainable reforms.

“I think compensation packages need to be fair. I think compensation that has been earned should be paid. I don’t think that you can renege on compensation,” McGee told the state House Pensions Committee in a public hearing last April.

McGee also has warned of a looming crisis with underfunded pensions, pressing for solutions that shift systems away from defined benefits based on average salary.

Wilkison said he believed McGee was unqualified for the review board because he is an advocate “who’s already decided which side of the argument he’s on” by favoring a shift toward privatization and away from defined benefits that offer certainty for retirees.

“In Texas, the police plans are very well funded,” Wilkison said, adding that pensions are part of a government’s promise to provide retirement certainty to officers who are “willing to face death and violence on every shift.”

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