Rep. Terry Canales of Edinburg, continues to call on Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, to declare health insurance funding and pensions that affect more than 600,000 current and retired teachers and their dependents as emergency items for the Texas Legislature when it returns to work on Tuesday, January 8, 2019 for its 140-day regular session.
A session is the period during which the Texas Legislature meets.
The regular session convenes every odd-numbered year, and may last no more than 140 days.
“Every year brings some combination of higher premiums and lower benefits for retired and active school employees so that Texas teachers – having dedicated their lives to public service – increasingly have to choose whether to pay their mortgage, buy groceries, or pay for potentially life-saving medications,” the House District 40 state lawmaker stated in his letter to the governor, dated Wednesday, December 12, 2018.
“We must ask: If we don’t support our teachers, what does that say about the Legislature’s support for our students and the future of public education in Texas?” Canales asked Abbott in the state legislator’s correspondence.
The Texas Constitution prohibits the House and Senate from passing legislation during the first 60 days of a regular legislative session unless either chamber suspends the rule by a vote of four-fifths of its membership, or if the legislation is an appropriation or other matter declared by the governor to be an emergency.
“Your constitutional ability to declare emergency items could allow the legislature to more quickly address this crisis,” Canales further stated in his letter. “I respectfully request that you make our teachers a top priority.”
This is not the first time he has brought up the issue of health care and pension improvements for active and retired public school educators.
“Earlier this year, I wrote to you requesting a special session of the Texas Legislature so that we could immediately address the health insurance crisis facing our current and retired teachers and other public-school employees. I followed up that letter with a request to also make adding additional funding for that purpose an Emergency Item in the 86th Legislature so that we can pass legislation on this important issue in the first 60 days of the Legislative Session,” he reminded the governor.
Canale continued: “As I said then, my local teachers — retirees on limited fixed incomes and active employees whose modest salaries are generally stagnant — are now paying hundreds of dollars more a month (sometimes more) for health-care services and essential medications. Retired and active school support employees face an even greater challenge: Their salaries and retirement annuities are significantly less than those of teachers but they must pay the same health-care costs.”
In late May 2017, Canales and his fellow colleagues in the House had offered a $500 million increase to help fund TRS-Care, with that amount coming from the Texas Economic Stabilization Fund, also known as the Texas Rainy Day Fund.
The Texas Rainy Day Fund, which is largely fed by taxes on oil and gas production, has been at the center of debates during previous legislative session over whether to tap it to help stave off budget cuts or increase funding to major state programs, such as public education, the Texas Tribune noted.
However, the Senate had offered $350 million from the state, but wanted local school districts statewide to provide an additional $134 million.
As of the end of November 2018, the Texas Rainy Day Fund swelled to a record high of $12.5 billion, according to the Texas Tribune.
During the past year, several House and Senate committees have been holding public hearings for the purposes of developing legislation dealing with health insurance and pension issues of crucial importance to public educators in Texas.
Those ideas will help come up with measures to be considered for action by the Texas Legislature during the upcoming 86th regular session.
According to the Texas Retired Teachers Association (TRTA), the Texas Legislature months ago released its interim charges for the Texas Senate and House of Representatives. The charges include issues pertaining to the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) pension fund and the TRS-Care retiree health insurance program. The charges directed committees to study certain facets relating TRS, and the reports generated by the studies will help inform and guide policymakers in 2019.
TRTA and other key constituents, along with state lawmakers, have focused on advancing an agenda of protecting the defined benefit plan, securing a pension increase for retirees, and advancing new and innovative funding solutions to address the TRS-Care shortfalls.
The issues being studied, from which legislation will be recommended, are:
House Committee on Appropriations
The House Committee on Appropriations studied the long-term sustainability of the TRS-Care program. The committee also considered options for funding this health care program, especially as it pertains to contributions being based on active employee payroll rather than the cost of health care. The committee also monitored how the bills passed by the Texas Legislature in 2017 relating to TRS-Care are implemented during the interim.
Two bills were passed relating to TRS-Care, H.B. 3976 and H.B. 30, and TRS has already used these bills as the blueprint for how it funds TRS-Care and organizes its participants’ benefits.
House Committee on Pensions
The House Committee on Pensions is of the utmost importance in determining the future health and funding for the TRS pension fund. The committee was charged with reviewing the state’s oversight of pension systems. Additionally, the committee is responsible for making recommendations to enhance the state’s oversight of local pension systems. The committee evaluated the investment oversight of a number of state-run retirement systems, including TRS. It will identify the best practices made by the agency and make recommendations to strengthen the state’s oversight of the system. The health incentive programs within the group benefit programs at TRS were to be reviewed and evaluated by the committee as well. The committee is responsible for making recommendations on how to reduce expenditures through TRS-Care. Similar to the House Committee on Appropriations, the Pensions Committee will review the implementation of bills passed relating to TRS.
House Public Education Committee
The House Public Education Committee has reviewed the charter school system in Texas. It will consider the differences in charter and district contributions to TRS on behalf of their employees and make appropriate recommendations to support the retirement benefits of all public school teachers.
The Senate Finance committee monitored health care costs throughout the state agencies, including TRS. The committee is attempting to improve and reduce health costs within TRS-Care.
Senate Health and Human Services
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee has been comparing alternative payment models with providers in Medicare managed care, which includes TRS. The goal of these models is to identify ways in which TRS and the Employee Retirement System (ERS) can work together.
Senate State Affairs
The Senate State Affairs Committee examined and assessed the TRS pension fund. It has been reviewing the different types of retirement plans, the actuarial assumptions used by TRS, TRS’s investment practices and performance and the adequacy of financial disclosures. The committee will make recommendations to ensure public pension system retirees’ benefits are preserved and protected. The committee is also charged with monitoring the implementation of legislative action on TRS from the past session.
Specifically, the Senate will monitor the following: the implementation of House Bill 3976, relating to the administration of and benefits payable under the Texas Public School Retired Employees Group Benefits Act.