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Retired teachers urge lawmakers to incorporate more funding options into the Texas Retirement System - a pension program for public education employees - that allow for inflation.

AUSTIN — Bobbie Duncan spent 43 years in Texas classrooms until she retired in 2001. At the time of her retirement, new changes in the Texas legislature allowed her to recoup nearly the same dollar amount she received while working. But that was 21 years ago.

Since then, today's prices are 1.62 times higher than average prices in 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index, meaning a dollar today only buys 62% of what it bought back then. And where the inflation rate was 2.85% in 2001, it is now 8.54%.

Duncan was one of several speakers who went before the Texas senate finance committee last week urging lawmakers to incorporate more funding options into the Texas Retirement System - a pension program for public education employees - that allow for inflation.

“As a retired teacher, I can't even afford to go to a retirement center because my income every month will not pay for assisted living,” Duncan said. “On behalf of thousands like me, I hope you will consider a reasonable, substantial (cost-of-living adjustment) for all of us retired school employees who helped educate the state.”

Tim Lee, executive director for the Texas Retired Teachers Association, said Duncan’s situation is not unique. In fact, complaints about retirement pay are what he hears most in his role from the organization’s 95,600 members.

Statewide there are about 480,000 retired education employees, and a total of 1.5 million active and retired educators, per TRS data.

The average monthly TRS check is about $2,100. That money, should the individual not have other income or savings, would have to cover everyday costs such as rent, groceries, gas, medical bills, internet and other daily expenses. The average monthly cost of nursing homes in Texas as of 2021 is about $6,388 for a private room while a semi-private room averages $5,019 per month, according to Genworth's 2020 Cost of Care Survey.

“There are plenty of folks (in TRS) that may not have the resources necessary to cover the costs of long-term care,” Lee said. “It's, unfortunately, a common difficult reality.”

The Texas teacher pension fund operates as an alternative to Social Security. Just as working Americans get a monthly check upon retirement, so do TRS members. Social Security, with a COLA, keeps pace with inflation, TRS does not.

“A pension is deferred compensation … they are earned by the educators that are getting them,” said Monty Exter, senior lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “Texas educators, by and large, are relying solely on that pension because they mostly don't get Social Security. For many of them, that pension really is all or nearly all of their income in retirement.”

While the state did pass a 3% raise capped at $100 per month for those who retired before 2004 during that session, not much has changed in the 17 years since. Those who retired after have not seen an increase in their monthly checks even as the price of medications and property taxes continue to rise. Many of those speaking out urged lawmakers to consider another bump, citing the recent spike in inflation causing the issue to become even more urgent.

“The two probably biggest issues that face retired teachers in Texas are both associated with lack of purchasing power or inflation over time,” Exter said. “When you're working over time you expect your salary to increase over time, at least to keep up with inflation, and for our retired educators and their annuities, that doesn't happen.”

HOW IT WORKS

TRS is a retirement security pension program mandatory for all non-hourly employees of Texas school districts including bus drivers, cafeteria workers and administrators. Established in 1936, the pension works by taking a certain amount from employees’ paychecks as well as an amount from the school district and the state. That money is then invested and earnings from the investment are used to cut monthly checks for retired educators.

It is an alternative to Social Security, and if an employee spends their entire career in education they do not receive any Social Security money.

In addition, Social Security — through federal law — limits the amount given to an individual who is also receiving TRS money. So while a teacher may work multiple jobs to supplement their salary, it could negatively impact the amount they are making in retirement, Lee said.

For retiree Louis Watkins, that became especially true when she retired after 32 years. A series of life events and medical expenses led her to moving in with her daughter to cut costs. She has even taken up a part-time job in retirement to supplement her income.

“Teaching is a calling, and I hope that you remember that,” Watkins said. “Your teachers are a precious commodity and we're getting fewer and fewer of them.”

TEACHER SHORTAGE

Educator pay and impacts from the coronavirus pandemic have been at the forefront of an academic crisis in Texas. Teachers are leaving the industry by the hundreds with one report saying nearly 500 teachers have quit in six months since October. A survey by Texas AFT released in February found that 66% ​ of educators throughout Texas said they have recently considered leaving their jobs.

The teacher shortage is so concerning that Gov. Greg Abbott launched a teacher retention task force in March. After receiving backlash that the task force had only two current educators among its 28 members, it was later expanded with 24 additional teachers and became a 52-member task force. The task force will work to address staffing challenges, officials said.

Besides the immediate impact the shortage has on Texas classrooms, the shortage could also impact TRS. Like Social Security, the TRS could run out of money if there are not enough workers putting into the fund. Beneficiaries are also living longer, which is something else the state must also consider. But Lee said that today the state has a high enough active teacher-to-retiree ratio to keep the fund healthy.

“TRS has done well to manage its assets and have enough funds to pay the future cost of benefits for TRS retirees,” Lee said. “But, as people choose to retire, if they do so and are doing it at younger ages, it does impact the retirement fund in a very negative way.”

MOVING FORWARD

If former educator Elizabeth Sunderland, who retired after 26 years of working as an educator and counselor, had her way, she would ask the state to consider a COLA that would automatically adjust based on inflation — similar to Social Security.

During the committee meeting, state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said she was concerned a COLA could actually hurt the fund as it has done to similar pensions in other states. This is because over time inflation and increasing prices for goods and services can erode the investment income, destabilizing the fund.

“We're never going to be for an automatic COLA,” Kolkhorst said. “I’ve seen it destroy Illinois, I've seen it destroy Pennsylvania. It's the retired teachers fund, and we have to be good fiduciary partners with (TRS) on protecting that fund in perpetuity for future teachers.”

Last legislative session the state considered a 6% COLA but it did not pass with lawmakers saying there was not enough money to support it. However, the lawmakers still appear to be in favor of doing something to help retirees.

In the past, including during the second special session last year, lawmakers approved a “13th check” for Texas education retirees. The most recent bill provided a one-time supplemental payment for TRS members who retired on or before Dec. 31, 2020, not to exceed $2,400.

But Exter pointed out during the committee meeting that while the check was needed and many educators were grateful for the relief, because the state legislature works on a biennium, the boost would have to span two years, instead of one.

He added that while the state did not have the funding last year for a COLA, currently the TRS fund has $20 billion in additional gains more than what was projected. Texas Comptroller Glenn Hagar also said last week that the projection for state funds available for the 2022-23 budget is $116 billion.

Should legislators opt to push a bill with a 6% COLA as they did last session, TRS officials say it could cost the state about $3.8 billion upfront, which Exter said is actually costs over time. Therefore, it is $3.8 billion for 20 to 30 years worth of increased benefits.

“The costs of particular COLA may not have been within reach during your last legislative session either internally with or within state dollars outside of the TRS fund. At this moment in time, it is within reach from either source of funding,” Exter said.

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