TRTA Legislative Outreach Effort is Critical

With more than 20 new Texas House members elected yesterday, TRTA members need to work swiftly to educate them on our legislative agenda. This is especially true when many elected officials are hearing bad news about public pension plans. The Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) is clearly in much better shape that most other public pension funds around the country, but getting the facts to new legislators before the start of the next legislative session is vital. In order to be successful, we must educate them on issues like funding the pension plan and protecting the TRS health insurance plan.

TRTA issues have little to do with partisan politics, but getting on the agenda this coming session requires intense grassroots coordination and pressure. The two major issues facing the state this session, budget and redistricting, present a very real obstacle to every issue in the Texas Legislature. TRTA members, though, are some of the most effective communicators and most persistent voices in the business. We need to harness all of our association’s strengths and resources to push our issues this session.

For TRTA members, the most pressing concern is when TRS annuitants will ever receive a much needed pension increase. Retired public education employees have not had an increase in nearly ten years, and legislators need to know the facts about this issue. Simply knowing the facts is not enough, as legislators will be asked what plans are being developed and implemented to provide relief for this decade of neglect.

Last session, the legislature authorized a supplemental payment to TRS retirees. The catch was, as you may remember, that the Attorney General needed to provide a positive legal opinion on the supplemental benefit. No such positive opinion was made, and the money that was set aside for retirees was supposed to be deposited into the TRS pension fund. Only 8 out of 12 payments were made during the fiscal year, and your TRS fund was shortchanged millions of dollars. The Legislature must respond to this situation and assure retirees that the money set aside for their benefit increase will be deposited in full.

Funding for the TRS pension fund and the TRS-Care program are primary TRTA legislative concerns. There is already early speculation that the state budget crisis will spell trouble for these two funds. The Texas Constitution requires the state to make no less than a 6 percent contribution to the fund, and state statute requires a one percent of the aggregate active teacher payroll contribution to the TRS-Care program. The state should meet the “annually required contribution,” or the amount that is necessary to bring the fund to actuarial soundness. Currently, the state contribution is 6.644 percent, an increase from the previous biennium contribution level of 6.58 percent. The increase last session came when retirees were denied the supplemental payment. This session, the TRS Board of Trustees has recommended the state increase its contribution by 0.5 percent each year of the coming biennium (making the TRS contribution 7.2 percent in the first year of the biennium and 7.7 percent in the second year). TRTA sees this as a reasonable first step, but a more aggressive plan is necessary to help public education retirees receive a benefit increase. While TRTA is promoting the need to increase TRS funding, budget writers may start from a much less advantageous position for the state’s contribution to the TRS trust fund.

Health care funding in any amount is not protected by the Texas Constitution like the pension trust fund. Texas statute requires a contribution to TRS-Care of one percent of the aggregate active teacher payroll. In a legislative session with a budget shortfall that some are projecting to be as high as $30 billion, TRTA members must be ready to fight to maintain the funding level. After a decade of neglect without pension increases, the last thing retirees need is the possibility of reduced health care benefits or increased premium costs.

These are just some of the many issues that TRTA will actively pursue this coming session. We have a great window of opportunity to reach out to all of the members of the Texas Legislature before session begins on January 11, 2011. While we need to make contact with every legislator, those TRTA members with a new House member should set an appointment to visit with them prior to their arrival in Austin for the start of session.

TRTA local unit leaders are encouraged to organize small teams to visit legislators between now and the start of session. A special TRTA Legislative Resource Guide will be available next week for local legislator visits. The guide includes important information on the TRTA legislative agenda, contact information for TRTA legislative staff, and important information on how TRS Texas is making a positive difference for all Texans. TRTA local leaders will be able to order guides for immediate delivery as you plan your legislator visits, and all TRTA members will be able to download the content off the TRTA website starting next week.

This will not be an easy session. We all know that there are real problems that Texas lawmakers will face, but we also know that TRTA issues are as important as any other issue coming up next session. Now is the time to stay committed, stand strong, and not back down in the face of adversity.

Thank you for your membership in TRTA! The significance of your continued support is so very important. I personally want to encourage all of you to talk to your friends and former colleagues and ask if they are on the TRTA team. Their help is needed, and I know they will not be disappointed in our efforts should they choose to join the fight and become a valued member.

Please consider this email as the first TRTA Call to Action for the 82nd Legislative Session. Now is the time to educate our elected officials so they will be prepared to take the action we desperately need to help all public education retirees. Again, thank you! The entire TRTA leadership and legislative team and I look forward to working with you and for you this coming session! If you have additional questions or comments, or if you have information that you would like to pass on to TRTA about a new legislator in your area, please contact me at tim@trta.org.