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Senator West On Negotiating Pension Deal: "Have You Ever Had Gumbo?"

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AUSTIN (CBS11) - Handshakes and smiles took center stage at a celebratory news conference at the State Capitol after a deal was finally reached Thursday afternoon to save the troubled Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund.

It came after intense, last-minute negotiations that began 10 days ago and continued through the early afternoon.

State Senator Royce West, D-Dallas, who helped oversee the negotiations, compared it to a popular dish. "Have you ever had gumbo? We're putting a little bit of this in there a little bit of that in there. We're trying to come up with the best Gumbo we possibly could."

He and other lawmakers, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, and most of the police and fire associations called the compromise a victory.

Michael Mata, the President of the Dallas Police Association said, "Today is a good day, today is the day that we solve the future of the Dallas police and Dallas Fire."

Mayor Rawlings said, "Today, I'm 100 percent happy. I really am, I'm really proud of these guys. Its been long and its been hard but we win together."

West said, "This has been a long time coming."

State Senator Don Huffines, R-Dallas said, "It's not an easy feat to strike a balance like this. The men and women of Dallas police and fire must be secure in their future. We must also fight for the hard-working taxpayers in our city who are already asked to pay far too much."

The Chairman of the House Pensions Committee, State Representative Dan Flynn, R-Canton, praised the agreement for the 10,000 active and retired police officers and firefighters. "This is one of those monumental days for us. I think today we can all stand together and say we've done it right."

Flynn led the negotiations and developed the bill that passed unanimously in the House earlier this month."

The President of the Dallas Fire Fighters Association Jim McDade said, "This bill is not perfect but we are building a foundation for the long term."

The news conference took place shortly after the Senate's State Affairs Committee voted unanimously, 8-0 to back the pension bill.

Under the deal struck, the pension fund will now be fully funded within 46 years and won't run out of money.

But the fund must still be monitored closely.

The chairman of the Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund, Sam Friar said, "It does save our pension fund in the long term. We have a good bill."

The fund's executive director Kelly Gottschalk credited the police and fire associations.

"The only way honestly that we are here today is these guys being willing to cut their benefits, frankly in half of what they would have gotten when they're 80 to what they're willing to get now when they're 80, it's about 50 percent. And they're paying dramatically more for that benefit."

Mayor Rawlings says it will give city taxpayers flexibility to pay into the system.

Sen. West urged the associations to convince their members the agreement is a good one. "It's important to note that these organizations here today will take an active role making certain we communicate the message. How important this particular legislation was and how well negotiated this was to the very end."

Mata agreed to the job ahead of them: "Help the citizens understand that this is a good deal, help our young officers understand this is a good deal to get them to stay and to go out and help recruit new employees, the best employees, to explain to them we are solid for years to come."

Everyone at the news conference admitted that no one got everything they wanted.

The Dallas Police Retired Officers Association opposes the pension bill.

The President of the group, Pete Bailey said, "We represent the group most negatively affected I think in this deal. We're going to go back and explain to them there was a ton of hard work done. There was a lot of good will put forward to try and create a situation where their futures would be secured."

Bailey says his group opposed the deal because some retirees may be forced to give back thousands of dollars they already received.

It's a provision called "clawback."

But two-thirds of the new pension board members would have to approve that provision.

James Freeman, who spent 36 years with the Dallas Police Department, went to the Capitol Thursday.

He opposes "clawback."

Freeman said, "A lot of money has been spent. I don't have it. A lot of people have died. Retirees have died and this money has been willed to spouses, to grandchildren.The money has been spent and redistributed."

Sen. West said he doesn't think that will be likely.

"I don't believe that that particular tool will be utilized unless it's absolutely necessary to, number one, save the fund, but for actuarial soundness."

The full Senate will vote on this bill next week.

It then goes back to the House, and Chairman Flynn, says it should pass that chamber without a problem before the legislative session ends at the end of the month.

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