Start of 82nd Legislative Session is Like the First Day of School
Now that we are in session, it’s time to get down to business
Education Process is the Core of TRTA Action
Just as the 82nd Legislative Session begins in Austin, the education process that is vital to TRTA’s success must continue. The reality of a deep budget shortfall is putting considerable pressure on ALL programs and interests. Organizations are expected to prepare for sweeping cuts. Compounding these concerns in Texas is the bleaker budget position of numerous other states and the ever-growing focus on public pension funds as a drain on those states’ economies. While these challenges are great and the task ahead is not going to be easy, Texas public education retirees have never backed down before and we will not back down now.
Insight on What to Expect Early this Session
In the next few days, the Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker of the House will name committees and begin working on a budget. TRTA works with numerous legislative committees, but many of the issues that pertain to TRTA go to the Senate State Affairs Committee, the Senate Finance Committee, the House Pensions, Investments, and Financial Services Committee, and the House Appropriations Committee. TRTA will send you the names of committee members as soon as they are announced. TRTA members should keep track of committee assignments and find out if your legislators sit on the committees that we follow. Direct communication from constituents on issues in committee is a vital part of our legislative efforts.
TRTA is ready to defend the current TRS pension fund contribution levels, as well as the state funding for the TRS-Care health insurance program. While there is only speculation that these contribution levels may be reduced, TRTA members should be ready to make early phone calls and send emails encouraging all legislators to preserve and expand funding for the TRS pension trust fund and for TRS-Care (TRTA will again use an email generation system that will help you send these emails to your legislators). Even though Texas statute provides for minimum funding levels for the pension fund and the health insurance program, we are hearing that all options for cuts are on the table. TRTA will be following this issue very closely.
TRTA is working with many legislators on various legislative initiatives. As these items are finalized, we will send notice of the bill numbers and what the legislative intent is for each bill. TRTA will also develop a bill tracker of all TRS-related legislation and provide information on these initiatives and TRTA’s position on the bills.
Attempts to Cut Defined Benefit Plan
Public pension funds are under attack all over the country. This is due in large part to various state legislatures around the country not adequately funding pension liabilities over the past 20 years. Today, there is a growing movement to rid state governments of providing traditional retirement plans for public workers, including educators.
In Texas, the Teacher Retirement System is in a strong financial position. While the system is not actuarially sound, it is recovering from the economic recession. The overall value has increased, and progress is being made to manage the system in a very professional manner. TRTA continues to work to improve funding for the system so that it can provide a real cost of living increase for pensioners.
The good news about TRS is not stopping interest groups from attacking public pension funds and demanding that the system be transitioned from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. Doing so would not reduce a current retiree’s benefit, but it would lower the funding levels for TRS at a time when we cannot afford this action. There is no evidence that transitioning this fund would save the state any money. It would, in fact, create a greater financial burden on the state.
TRTA members must be ready to educate their legislators on the benefits of preserving the retirement system as it is. We will produce more information on the value TRS offers to all Texans as the legislative session progresses.
Constant Education and Communication
Legislators have some very big challenges they must deal with this session. While it is dire that retirees have not had an increase in 10 years, many brand new legislators may not know much about our predicament. We must educate ALL members of the legislature on the facts: retirees have not had a true cost of living raise in 10 years; 95% of school districts do not pay into Social Security, and if a retiree does qualify for any Social Security at all, it is likely to be reduced because of federal provisions known as the Government Pension Offset and the Windfall Elimination Provision; retirees participating in the TRS-Care health insurance program pay monthly premiums for this benefit (some state retirees have a no-cost health insurance benefit); and something must be done to help retirees who have been forced to tighten their belts and cut expenses long before it became the national and state trend.
Legislators need to hear from TRTA members often during session. As we already mentioned, TRTA will utilize the email generation service for member contact this session as we have in the past. We also provide a toll-free hotline for you to call your legislators directly (1.888.674.3788). TRTA is also planning a Day at the Capitol on March 23, 2011. All members willing to visit Austin are welcome to attend.
The bottom line is that we have to work hard to make our voices heard. We will use email, phone calls, personal visits, testimony opportunities, media outlets, and all other resources available to us to protect your pension and get you a much needed benefit increase.
The first day of legislative session is already over, but we will use every opportunity over the remaining 139 days to advance our TRTA initiatives. Encourage your friends and fellow retirees to get involved and be active. Together, I know we will be successful. Your continued support is greatly appreciated.