On Tuesday, the Texas Legislature convened for the 83rd Legislative Session. As the session begins, I cannot help but think of the now famous political question “are you better off today than you were four years ago?”  Many TRS annuitants may be quick to respond that public education retirees have not had a pension increase in 12 years. It has been 5 years since the supplemental payment was provided to retirees in 2008 (passed in the 2007 Legislative Session). So, the obvious and painful answer for many TRS retirees is that we are not better off today than we were four years ago.

At the same time, think back to the start of session just four years ago. The national economy had taken a major blow, we were moving into a deep recession, jobs were being cut across the country and the markets had plunged. The TRS pension trust fund had decreased in value from $113 billion in August of 2008 to $67 billion by February 2009 (that was a $50 billion drop in just 5 and a half months!).

Indeed, both the 2009 and 2011 legislative sessions were very difficult as the state budget and the political will to make improvements for pensioners seemed low.

TRTA members rallied in those sessions to reassure legislators that the pension fund, and pension fund policy, is a long-term venture and one that does not warrant kneejerk reactions to daily trends. TRS is in the forever business, and TRTA members worked hard during those sessions to protect the pension trust fund and our TRS-Care health insurance program.

While TRS retirees did not receive an increase in their pensions, TRTA did prevent drastic increases in TRS-Care health insurance premiums and worked with the Legislature to ensure the pension fund was managed appropriately (the Legislature did not dictate how the pension fund managed its assets, but allowed the pension trustees to make those decisions without undue political involvement).

Perhaps most compelling in the aftermath of the trust fund suffering such major losses, not a single retiree was told their annuity check would be skipped or would even be delayed. In addition, no active teacher was told they could not retire during those difficult economic times. If you ever needed even more evidence why our TRS defined benefit plan is worth protecting, those are a few very poignant facts!

The start of the 83rd Legislative session is a much different time. State revenues are up, the state’s reserve fund (often referred to as the Rainy Day Fund) has increased, and many programs that were cut last session may see those cuts restored.

TRS must be one of the state’s vital budget interests this session! TRTA has been working with elected officials and budget writers since the end of the last regular legislative session demanding that the cuts made to the TRS pension trust fund and TRS-Care health insurance program be restored this session.

TRTA also is calling on the Legislature to increase their contributions to both programs. Our retirees have been asked session after session to work with the Legislature to help make the pension fund actuarially sound so that retirees can receive a real cost-of-living adjustment. TRTA has supported numerous efforts to improve funding, cut waste, and end retirement practices that were not deemed sound.

TRTA supported pension reforms back in 2005 long before other states even perceived that such action was vital to their own pension funds’ long-term health. We have worked closely with the Legislature to make incremental improvements.

Last session, though, the Legislature cut TRS funding to either constitutional or statutory minimums (in the case of TRS-Care, they cut the program to less than the statutory levels deemed necessary).

The Legislature cannot keep doing the minimum, then wait and see if the markets will make up for years of inadequate funding. TRS retirees and their loss of buying power cannot and should not be ignored by the Legislature. Putting retirees’ health care program at risk is not how our public education retirees should be treated after dedicating their lives to educating our children.

TRTA wants to champion any legislative effort to improve the overall health and fiscal soundness of the TRS pension trust fund, while protecting the current TRS defined benefit plan for all future public education retirees. We also call on the Legislature to make the necessary contributions to the TRS-Care fund and TRS pension fund. Retirees cannot afford health care premium increases. If our retirees are ever to receive a true cost-of-living increase, the state must increase its funding to the pension fund.

Achieving these goals will not be easy, but it starts with the Legislature recognizing that the state cannot keep doing the minimum and hoping for maximum results. Getting by with state minimum contributions is not the way to improve the pension trust fund or TRS-Care health insurance program. Our pension trust fund and the TRS-Care program are far more valuable to this state if they are well-funded and growing.

TRTA has a robust legislative agenda. Much of our early legislative work will focus on the budget. Perhaps the most critical goal for TRTA during this session is protecting the TRS-Care health insurance program. TRTA has been successful in keeping retiree premiums from increasing for 8 years. This is a tremendous accomplishment for all TRTA members that have worked on this legislative initiative.

As all TRS-Care participants know, the health care program is experiencing a number of changes to contain program costs. Many of these changes maintain, and have even improved, benefit levels for some TRS-Care participants; but the fact remains that these are cost containment measures being employed by TRS because the TRS-Care program is running out of money.

The Texas Legislature must address the TRS-Care funding situation. The program participants are paying the highest share of the cost of TRS-Care through premiums, co-pays, deductibles, and out-of-pocket expenses. The state likely will not find a better managed, more efficient, quality coverage program than TRS-Care. Funding to TRS-Care must be restored. Any supplemental appropriations that are needed to prevent drastic increases in retiree premiums or reduced coverage must be a part of this Legislature’s budget.

We have many challenges ahead of us in the next 140 days, including educating nearly 50 new legislative members.  We can use your help to accomplish this very important task as well as to help us maintain relationships with key legislators that influence decisions about TRS and the TRS healthcare program.

We are asking all of our members to commit to one or more activities this session.  It is never too soon to begin communicating TRTA’s goals to your Senators and Representatives!

Will you…

  • Contact your legislator with a phone call?

You can use a toll-free number to find out who your legislators are and to receive their contact information.  Call 1.888.674.3788!

Contact information for legislators can also be found on the Texas Tribune website at the following link: www.texastribune.org/directory.

  • Mail a TRTA Fact Sheet to your legislator?

You can download Fact Sheets from the TRTA website at www.trta.org (hover over the Legislation tab, then Select TRTA Legislative Initiative)

You can also detach the Fact Sheet found in the 4th quarter issue of The VOICEand mail it to your legislator!

  • Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper?

Writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper is a great way to inform the general public about the truth of TRS and its retirees.  Many people do not know, for example, that 95% of public school employees in Texas do not pay into Social Security.  Help us spread the message that TRS is not in crisis, our retirees have earned their financial security, and protecting TRS now protects current public educators too!

  • Respond to TRTA email action alerts and email your legislators during session?

As the session gets underway, we will be using this Inside Line e-newsletter feature to provide you with sample letters that you can email to your legislators with a few clicks of your mouse! Please check your email regularly for legislative alerts.  We may need you to contact your legislator to bring an important bill about TRS to the attention of the Pensions, Investments and Financial Services Committee or to tell your legislator how to vote on a bill.

Every session, TRTA is recognized as one of the most active, involved, educated, articulate, passionate, and organized groups working with the Texas Legislature. We are a large and strong voice for public education retirees. Thank you for your hard work. Thank you for the hours you put in helping your fellow TRS retirees. Thank you for your recruitment efforts that have grown TRTA into the organization that it is.

Now is the time to pursue these issues and address any others that may develop over the next 140 days. There are MANY competing interests working for their own good cause this session. I know, though, that no other group can be as effective as our public education retirees!

TRTA always has been the most successful when our members worked as active participants in our legislative initiatives. We are ready for the coming challenges and we know that you are too. Please feel free to address your questions and concerns about the session by emailing me directly at tim@trta.org or to our wonderful TRTA staff at info@trta.org.