20 Jul

TRTA Legislative Committee Meets, Solidifies Plans for 85th Texas Legislature

The Texas Retired Teachers Association’s Legislative Committee held meetings throughout July 18-19 to discuss the 2017 Texas Legislature. The committee is comprised of 21 members from the various TRTA districts.

It is the responsibility of the state Legislative Committee to communicate with their local unit counterparts to ensure a cohesive, well-organized lobbying effort throughout the interim and during the legislative session.

The Legislative Committee from left to right:
(Back row) Dr. Wayne Berryman, Paul Pearson, Dr. Charles Thompson, Jerry Pybus,
Billy Jack Rankin, Roger Huber, Dannie Hefner, Rueben Saenz, Terry Allen, Dr. James Warner,
Kenneth Hanson, Gayle Watkins, Charles Starcke. (Not pictured: Wayne Byrd)
(Front row) Paula Miller, Genoveva Castillo, Jack Teddlie, Bill Barnes,
Dr. Mary Widmier, Tonna Duke, Dr. Carole Ann Buchanan.

Many of the committee discussions centered on the issue of TRS-Care. TRS-Care is the health care program provided to nearly 250,000 retired educators by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS). The preservation of TRS-Care is paramount to the livelihoods of retired educators, and its funding system is in need of an overhaul.

During the 84th legislative session, TRS-Care required $768 million to remain solvent for the biennium. For 2017, that number could jump to $1.6 billion. Even as the funding for TRS-Care has come, the health care program has experienced significant changes to its benefits structure.

The TRTA legislative committee has made it a priority to communicate with legislators both before and during session about the best solutions to preserve the program, and to provide key resources to help the legislators make the best decisions.

The committee meeting also featured presentations from TRTA’s Pensions Consultant, Ronnie Jung, and TRTA’s Legislative Consultant, Vicki Truitt. Truitt’s presentation touched on the importance of the November elections and the preservation of the TRS Defined Benefit plan.

Josh McGee, the Vice-President of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, is serving as the Chairman of the Pension Review Board. McGee is an out-spoken advocate for replacing defined benefit plans, such as the one provided by TRS.

Meanwhile, Jung detailed history of TRS-Care and how the health care program’s current operating budget is not in line with rising health care costs. Since the Legislature first created TRS-Care, the program has received funding from a pay-as-you-go strategy. Jung explained that the only way to ensure TRS-Care’s future is for the Texas Legislature to pre-fund the program.

While pre-funding TRS-Care is the most initially expensive option for the Legislature to consider, its long-term benefits would be enormous, as it would provide safety and security for retired educators’ health benefits. According to TRS estimates, the Legislature would need to invest $2.7 billion into TRS-Care during the 2018-19 biennium and $2.8 billion during the 2020-21 biennium to pre-fund TRS Care.

Additionally, the committee focused on federal lobbying to reform the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and Government Pension Offset (GPO). Recently, H.R. 711, a bill designed to reform the WEP and put money back into retirees’ pockets, suffered a major setback. TRTA and the legislative committee are determined to get the bill back on track and help the retirees who have been unfairly penalized since 1983.

Thank You

TRTA’s Legislative Committee is committed to providing consistent, clear communication with Texas legislators. You can find more information about the committee here. You can read the committee’s resource guide here and the training guide here.

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13 Jul

WEP Reform a Difficult Road

Dear Friends,

Everyday I have the privilege to work with thousands of TRTA members and supporters on issues paramount to their retirement. The reform of the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) is one of the most impassioned and challenging efforts we deal with.

Like so many of you, we were disappointed that the help for current retirees may not be as much as we originally believed, certainly not as much as it should be. However, TRTA is right to support this current effort, and I wanted to offer some additional explanation to you before today’s vote.

Many of you have worked on this issue for years, decades even. TRTA pointed out when the WEP originally was passed it was a bludgeon against future retirees. Congress used the proverbial hammer when a scalpel may have been warranted. The issue that WEP was trying to address, that of non-covered Social Security years of employment (referred to as uncovered earnings), was an attempt to address benefit calculation issues with the SS formula.

For three decades, public workers have felt the effects of that hammer on their vastly reduced Social Security benefits. Many of you have offered true, compelling and heart-wrenching stories about how difficult it is to make ends meet because of a reduced SS benefit. So many of my friends have travelled to Washington, D. C. with me to argue against this very arbitrary and unfair law.

I started working for retired educators in 1996. That’s when I first learned about the WEP and the Government Pension Offset (GPO). I took up the torch with my good friend and former TRTA Executive Director Mike Lehr to convince Congress that WEP was more than unfair, it was punitive, and something needed to be done. Full repeal was and is the official position of TRTA! That’s what we have always championed and believe is the best solution to this issue.

Today, for the first time that I can remember, a U.S. House committee will put forward a bill that has a very real chance of passing and is viewed by many to be a far more fair way to address the WEP. The magnitude of this moment cannot and should not be lost in what is often times the hyper-charged world of politics and policymaking in D.C.

I wish I could adequately convey to you that this attempt, even if it is not everything all of us may hope to have, is a major step forward. You see, not everyone agrees that the WEP is a problem.

Many elected officials have their own solution to the WEP. They vary from “leave it alone and let it work the way it does” to “there is no problem with the WEP except that some people who should be affected by it do not get ‘caught’ in the current system and we need greater enforcement” to “if you want to get rid of the WEP, then your state public employees should be forced into Social Security.” While that final option may sound ideal, the reality is that decision would likely destabilize and ruin our Teacher Retirement System benefit plan.

We have often talked about the 14 states that are impacted by WEP and GPO. This can be misunderstood. There are about 14 states where public educators do not pay into the SS system while they are covered under their state’s teacher retirement system. We call this non-covered service. However, every state in the country has public workers that pay into a pension plan and may not pay into SS. The 14 states receive a lot of attention because educators, by and large, are the largest group of public workers impacted by the WEP and GPO because there are more public school employees than any other public servant. The WEP, though, hurts educators, state workers, firefighters, cops and millions of public employees across the nation.

Today is a big day. I have answered many emails and phone calls from disappointed TRTA members that the rebate portion of HR 711 has been reduced. Much of that reduction was a compromise on a portion of the bill called “enforcement.” There are many public workers who have retired and may have been misinformed about the WEP, or for some reason, inappropriately reported their government service and have not been “WEPed.”

The bill created a path to recalculating the benefits of those who have not reported their government service and “enforcing” the WEP on those it should have impacted but have “slipped through” for whatever reason. While “enforcement” has always been a part of the discussion, the removal of the provisions impacted the rebate amount for those retirees who adequately and truthfully reported their work history to SS. This compromise on the enforcement language in the legislation has taken a lot of the money off the table.

While it was right to look at the enforcement provision of the bill and offer a compromise, it was a costly price to absorb for retirees receiving the rebate. During this process we have also witnessed disagreements between two vitally important groups who serve Congress during these discussions. “Scoring” the bill (the process by which Congress is informed of the cost or the savings of an action) has been extremely difficult. The end result is that the Congressional Budget Office and the Social Security Actuary needed to come to some agreement on how the bill works and what its fiscal impact is over an agreed upon time horizon. The CBO uses a 10-year time horizon and the SSA uses a 40-year time horizon, vastly different approaches. Neither is wrong for their intended purpose, but when these two views collide, they make policy development incredibly difficult.

I know this sounds like internal policy mumbo-jumbo, and should not be our problem to correct. However, fiscal policy is not our only dilemma. Our coalition has dealt with numerous counter proposals, setbacks and impassioned disagreement within our own public employee realm on how best to deal with this issue. At the same time, we have met resistance to any change at all from other groups who do not think reform is warranted. There are plenty of other groups who do not represent public workers who view this revenue possibility in the SS system as their opportunity to seize available dollars and advance their issues while we sit on the sidelines or work out our differences. Ultimately, those groups hope we lose the momentum to help our members and future retirees.

There is always someone else, some interest or group in D. C., waiting to seize the moment and take a victory back to their members at a cost to someone else. Today, we have the chance to take a big step forward to help OUR members. We want to help all public workers impacted by the WEP. TRTA members have said to me “please do not let my daughter or my son, who is now a teacher, end up being hurt in the same way that I have been hurt by the WEP.” That plea has been made to me countless times, and was made with no regard to that person’s own benefit.

We have an opportunity today to help those future retirees. We have a chance to also help the current retirees receive as much as $720 a year, and that extra rebate will happen every year for the rest of that retiree’s life.

I could say to you easily that “TRTA supports full repeal and we will accept nothing less,” but many of you have told us that you do not believe complete repeal will ever happen and that something is better than waiting on nothing. TRTA is not abandoning the idea of complete repeal, but we will also not sit by idly. I will not sell you false hope that full repeal is just around the corner if we hold out until the next election or the next election after that. We have heard such things for decades.

Congressman Kevin Brady (our Texas Congressman!) is an honest man. He is a believer in public service. He is a good guy trying to bring dozens, even hundreds, of interests together to start addressing the horrible problems of the WEP and GPO. He has brought with him another good guy, Congressman Richard Neal, to the table to get this resolved. We all know Congressman Brady as a respected Republican from Texas. Mr. Neal is a respected Democrat from Massachusetts. These two men are working TOGETHER in a BIPARTISAN way to address an issue that has been left untouched for more than 30 years.

Every journey starts with the first step. We have all been trying to really get this process started, and it has been a long and difficult road. We need the House Ways and Means Committee to vote this bill out of their committee today and start the journey to helping our current and future retirees by putting money back in their pockets as quickly as possible.

We can, and will, always work for more. We need to start somewhere. Waiting for complete repeal has taken 30 long years already. TRTA members are tired of nothing getting in the way of something.

Please consider this a first step. We can make this better as we continue on this journey. Help us seize the moment in front of us. Ask your friends, family, fellow retired teachers, active educators, and anyone you know who is a police officer, firefighter or other public worker to support this effort. We need all the help we can get.

TRTA is going to do whatever we can to get you some much deserved relief. We will not give up on getting you the most possible, but this process cannot end today. We have all worked too hard to be told it’s better to wait with nothing to show for it.

Call your Congressman today and tell them we support Chairman Brady and Congressman Neal to reform the current WEP and to pass HR 711 out of the Ways and Means Committee. Click here to find your Congressman’s phone number (at the bottom of the page). Even if your Congressman does not serve on the Ways and Means Committee, let’s send a message to that they should pay attention to this bill and we will need their vote soon when this process takes us to the next step…a full vote by Congress supporting HR 711!

Your friend,

Tim Lee

Executive Director

Texas Retired Teachers Association

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13 Jul

WEP Reform Receives Major Setback in Committee Hearing, Fight for Equal Treatment Continues

The Equal Treatment of Public Servants Act (H.R. 711) received a major setback in its hearing under the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee today. The bill, which seeks to reform the harmful Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP), was scheduled to receive a vote, but was postponed indefinitely due to push back from various public worker organizations.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R – The Woodlands) expressed his disappointment for the bill’s exemption from the committee meeting. He stated that an agreement could not be formed among advocacy organizations, and that this disagreement is the cause of the bill’s postponement.

“We need the community to come together,” said Brady. “We will postpone consideration of H.R. 711 until agreement is found.”

Meanwhile, many retired and active educators will continue to lose hundreds of dollars per month until an agreement is reached. The inaction on H.R. 711 today was a major setback for reforming the WEP, including any real discussion about a full repeal.

Some public worker advocacy groups recently have called for the dismissal of H.R. 711 and support only a full repeal of the WEP. These actions have done a tremendous disservice to public education employees especially, the largest group of public servants impacted by the provision.

Congressman Richard Neal (D –Massachusetts) also expressed his dismay at the bill’s postponement. He pointed to the need for those in various public service communities to come together on this issue.

While we are disappointed at TRTA about today’s postponement, we want our members to know that we are not giving up on H.R. 711!

Now is NOT the time to assume progress on the WEP is lost; in fact, the CLOCK IS TICKING. Congress reconvenes in September and we have no time to waste to get H.R. 711 back on track for a committee vote!

If you are not already a member of TRTA, please join today. Only by working together will we be able to resolve the WEP. If you are already a member, please encourage your fellow retirees to join and renew.

TRTA is ready to get to work on finding agreement with advocacy groups across the country, and will do so tirelessly until our members and public service retirees across the nation receive some financial relief!

Thank You

We would like to thank our members, our national coalition partners and all those who have made phone calls and sent letters on this issue. We will be asking for your help again in the very near future, and we ask for your patience and continued support.

TRTA especially thanks Chairman Brady for his tireless work on the bill, as well as Congressman Neal for his steadfast support and passionate plea for all groups to come together in agreement.

TRTA will continue to provide national leadership and help others come to the table on this critical issue. Please be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to stay up-to-date on all our legislative news.

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