The Texas Retired Teachers Association (TRTA) is requesting Governor Greg Abbott to consider adding a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) or other benefit increase for members of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) to the call for the special session.

Here is the letter from Tim Lee, TRTA’s Executive Director, to Governor Abbott. Earlier today, Tim Lee went live on Facebook and YouTube to discuss a letter from TRTA’s State President, Leroy DeHaven, about what happened with this session’s COLA bills. The recording is available here.

Below, you will find the full text of DeHaven’s letter.

TRTA Members,

TRTA set an aggressive and positive policy agenda for the 87th Legislature. Our near 100,000 members worked in partnership with the Legislature, and we achieved many of the items on our policy agenda. We want to thank all of our members, supporters, elected officials, and other state leaders who helped push the TRTA legislative priorities in the regular session of the 87th Texas Legislature.

Our legislative victories this session include:

  • The preservation of funding for the TRS actuarial soundness plan that was passed in the 86th session. TRS was allocated $5 billion in new and additional funding as a result of this work. TRTA recognizes the Legislature’s commitment to meeting the promise made last session with this increased appropriations level for TRS.
  • Full funding for the TRS-Care program to meet the statutory commitment to the vital health care plan for TRS retirees.
  • Adopting significant changes to the TRS agency to put it back on a path to be more “member friendly” through the sunset process.
  • Many other administrative changes that will benefit retired and active TRS members.

One item, though, that was not addressed was the dire financial need of so many public education retirees who desperately need an increase in their modest TRS pension benefit.

TRTA is disappointed that a COLA for TRS retirees was not passed this session.

Our members are asking two basic questions: “What stopped the COLA from advancing?”; and “What now?”

What Stopped the COLA Bill From Advancing?

The most correct and accurate answer to this question seems to be that a cost-of-living adjustment was not a priority for the 87th regular session. This answer, though, necessitates some review of what happened on the issue this session.

The Texas Senate had a number of COLA bills as well as a supplemental payment bills drafted and referred to the Senate Finance Committee. None of those bills were given a hearing.

It is unfortunate that these bills were not given a public hearing. Retirees would have been able to offer public testimony. They would have been able to explain why it’s the right time to provide a COLA or other benefit enhancement. These bills all failed in the Senate.

The Texas House also had numerous COLA and supplemental payment bills and other strategies in play throughout the session. While all of them ultimately failed, the House had more activity on COLA and supplemental payment options for TRS retirees this session.

The most widely known of these options were HB 3214 by Representative Giovanni Capriglione and HB 3507 by Representative Glenn Rogers.

HB 3214 was a true COLA bill that would have provided a 6% increase to TRS retirees capped at $100 per month. The bill simply authorized the COLA and allowed the legislature to use any method it had available to fund the pension increase. The bill maintained the trust fund’s actuarial soundness. The House Pensions, Investments, and Financial Services Committee held a hearing on HB 3214 and voted it out unanimously.

HB 3507 authorized a supplemental payment capped at $2,400 for all eligible TRS annuitants. The bill also maintained actuarial soundness with minimal impact on the system. The House Pensions, Investments, and Financial Services Committee had a hearing on HB 3507 and voted it out unanimously.

These bills were sent to the House Calendars committee and were held there. TRTA requested a meeting with the Calendars Committee Chair Dustin Burrows; however, he did not meet with our TRTA Capitol legislative team. TRTA did meet with his staff and received advice to work with the Calendars Committee members. TRTA met with every Calendars Committee member and heard little to no resistance by these members to advancing the COLA or the supplemental payment bills.

Other legislators suggested TRTA leaders should meet with Representative Greg Bonnen, Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Chairman Bonnen met with us on April 28, 2021. We are grateful to Chairman Bonnen for meeting with us. He provided some insight into why the bill had been held up in the Calendars Committee.

In a letter from Chairman Bonnen dated May 7, 2021, he stated: “Direct and candid dialogue is the centerpiece of trust between legislators and organizations like yours. To that end, I fully support a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for our state’s retired teachers, however the information provided by TRS gives me pause about whether this session is the appropriate time to move forward.”

Chairman Bonnen offered to facilitate a meeting between TRTA and TRS to discuss the differences in analysis on how HB 3214 may have impacted the system. The “cost” of the proposed COLA was of particular consequence.

Chairman Bonnen stated in the letter, “TRTA is a critical advocate for retired teachers, and I appreciate your commitment to remain constructive and helpful in these conversations today and in the future… I look forward to working together for the long-term benefit of those who invested so much in the future of our children and grandchildren.”

On May 11, 2021, TRTA met with TRS leaders. We reviewed the information and both sides agreed that it was factual. TRTA didn’t disagree with the information provided by TRS.

TRTA suggested ways to improve the actuarial analysis, as well as other key items related to the benefit the COLA would provide to TRS retirees.

TRTA asserted that the Legislature knew the methods available to provide a COLA. The two major conditions for the COLA had already been met, that the TRS fund was actuarially sound, and that the proposed COLA would be possible while still maintaining the fund’s actuarial soundness. The rest of the information, including pre-funding and finance costs, was relevant only to the methods of how the Legislature chose to authorize the increase.

TRTA’s perspective on the information provided by the TRS actuarial impact statement was that it could be used in a way to argue for or against the COLA.

Facts are facts, but how the information was used to support or deny an action is up to interpretation.

TRTA believes that a few elected officials may have focused more on some of the data points TRS provided than others. The view of these data points without proper context adversely impacted the bill’s progression.

The Texas House Calendars Committee never released HB 3214 or 3507 for a vote by the full Texas House and they died in committee.

On May 27, 2021, the Texas House took its final vote on the State’s budget for the coming biennium. During that bill’s final presentation to the Texas House, TRTA’s friend and champion for all TRS retirees, Representative Rafael Anchia, asked a series of questions to Chairman Bonnen on the House floor that focused on how the legislature did not act to provide a benefit enhancement for TRS retirees.

Click here to see the full exchange between Chairman Anchia and Chairman Bonnen.

By the end of session, the answer provided by the Legislature to TRS retirees on what killed the COLA seems to be…TRS is not yet fiscally stable enough, therefore, not now. 

TRS is actuarially sound. More than 130,000 TRS retirees are earning an annuity of $1,000 per month or less. More than half of all current TRS retirees having never received a COLA during their retirement. The federal government still treating our retirees unfairly with both the WEP and the GPO. NOW is the best time for the Texas Legislature to act on a COLA.

The Legislature is still clearly hesitant to provide the full COLA. TRTA believes a supplemental payment could have and should have been authorized either through HB 3507 or by the budget amendment that was authored by Representative Yvonne Davis. Her amendment would have provided retirees with a full, uncapped 13th check. But the amendment was stripped from the final version of the budget.

The 87th Legislature ultimately chose to not act on any of these benefit enhancement options this session.

What Now?

The only path forward to helping TRS retirees in the immediate future is to have the issue of a COLA or other benefit increase added to the call for the coming special legislative session.

Governor Greg Abbott has the sole responsibility for calling a special session and for the issues the legislature may address during that session.

TRTA has, as of today, sent a letter to Governor Abbott asking him to add the issue of a TRS COLA or other benefit increase to the call for the first called special session.

TRTA will update our members on the Governor’s response.

TRTA has a near 70-year history working with the Texas Legislature. We are proud of our track record and our method of education and advocacy is appreciated and respected both by our membership and also by the elected officials who serve Texas.

What we have learned in our 70 years is that there is usually never just one single individual to blame for a legislative loss. In addition, we recognize the supercharged environment that exists today in the body politic. Most organizations and people who work in this world are pushing an agenda or political point of view in order to influence votes for one party or another.

TRTA has offered a factual representation of what we know about the COLA and supplemental payment discussions from this session. It is very likely that some in the Legislature may not like that we have been this transparent with our members.

TRTA, though, is dedicated to doing the right thing and to being honest and open with the people who put their trust in our work on their behalf. We work for our members. Our objective is to take our members’ needs and concerns to the Legislature, work to achieve those objectives, build relationships with elected officials on all sides of the political spectrum and to win on the merits of the issues themselves.

We have also clearly articulated the many achievements and positive actions taken on behalf of and for all TRS members this session by the Legislature. Again, TRTA is grateful for this work, and we are proud to stand with all legislators who helped on these important issues.

The issue of the COLA, though, is one that impacts the pocketbook of hundreds of thousands of deserving and patient TRS retirees.

The only path forward to helping TRS retirees now is to have the issue of a COLA or other benefit increase added to the call for the coming special legislative session.

Under Texas §821.006 Government Code, the Texas Legislature may provide authorization for TRS to issue a benefit increase to TRS retirees so long as that benefit increase would not push the system’s unfunded liability beyond 31 years.

TRS retirees have been assured by Texas policy makers for two decades that when the system was actuarially sound, as suggested by Texas §821.006 Government Code, their work and self-sacrifice would be rewarded with a much-needed pension increase.

Our members believe that elected leaders made a promise to help them when the TRS pension trust fund was actuarially sound. Now is that time. A COLA would improve the retirement security of all TRS members, as well as preserve the TRS fund. It is the right thing to do. It would benefit approximately 400,000 Texans who dedicated their lives to the service of Texas communities, parents, and students. Now is the time to help them.

We are asking all TRS retirees to join us and to help work to achieve a COLA or benefit enhancement now. We are working to see this issue revisited in a coming special session. Please join us as we continue our work to win for all TRS retirees.

Sincerely,
Leroy DeHaven, TRTA President

Thank You

The TRTA membership drive is underway for the coming 2021-22 membership year. No other group focuses solely on your TRS retirement security! Please join us today!

Thank you for being a member of TRTA and supporting issues that affect retired Texas public school personnel. Be sure to download the TRTA app to receive all of the latest updates and communicate with your fellow retirees.