Tag Archives: TRS

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 9, 2017

Here’s your latest news wrap-up from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:

 


IMG_8509On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced his plans for a special session beginning July 18. This “overtime” period for the 85th legislature is needed only because lawmakers failed to pass an important, time-sensitive agency sunset bill that affects the licensing of medical professionals, a failure many are attributing to deliberate stall tactics and the “bill kidnapping” approach taken by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the final week of the regular session. Lawmakers could address the sunset issue within a matter of days and head home to enjoy the dog days of summer with their families, but Abbott is calling on them to take up 19 additional issues during the 30-day special session, which is estimated to cost taxpayers about $1 million.

During the governor’s press conference, he led off his laundry list of topics for the upcoming special session with a surprise announcement that he wants lawmakers to mandate a $1,000 annual pay raise for teachers. The catch, as ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins explains in this blog post, is that no additional money would be appropriated for the salary increase. Gov. Abbott made it clear that he intends for school districts to find money within their existing budgets to cover the proposed pay raise. For many districts, that would necessitate cuts in some other area, which would very likely be expenditures for staff pay or benefits, such as healthcare programs that are already becoming increasingly hard for educators to afford. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter added in this video for Twitter that potential offsets could include staff layoffs or higher class sizes, depending on each district’s financial circumstances and priorities.

If the governor planned to use this special session as another shot at meaningful school finance reform, then perhaps legislators could find ways to fund a teacher pay raise and other critical needs of our public schools. Unfortunately, the only school finance-related issue on the governor’s call is legislation to appoint a statewide commission to study school finance during the next interim.

Another surprise topic added to the governor’s agenda for the special session is giving districts greater “flexibility” in their hiring and firing decisions. Teacher contract rights have been targeted in prior legislative sessions, but the topic was hardly broached during the 2017 legislative session.

ATPE representatives testified against a bill to eliminate teachers' payroll deduction rights during the regular session.

ATPE representatives testified against an anti-educator bill to eliminate teachers’ payroll deduction rights during the regular session. The contentious issue is being revived for the upcoming special session.

The remaining school-related items in the special session outline are a trio of controversial, highly partisan scorecard issues from bills that failed to garner enough support to pass during the regular session:

  • One is the anti-educator legislation to do away with teachers’ rights to pay their voluntary professional association dues using payroll deduction. In Tuesday’s press conference, Gov. Abbott revived tired rhetoric from his Jan. 2017 State of the State address that has already been proven false – the claim that taxpayer dollars are being spent to collect “union dues.” We will continue to refute this unfounded claim and fight this harmful, unnecessary measure aimed at silencing educators’ voices by making it more difficult for them to join associations like ATPE.
  • Also on tap for this legislative overtime is yet another push for private school vouchers for students with special needs. With the Texas House of Representatives having already voted multiple times to reject this idea, it is hard to fathom a sudden change of heart that would give this legislation a greater chance of passing during the special session.
  • Lastly, the governor is also asking lawmakers again to try to restrict local school districts’ adoption of policies on bathroom usage. Both chambers passed versions of a bathroom bill during the regular session, but they could not agree on the extent to which the state should infringe on local control over these decisions. In other words, get ready for even more potty talk.

To read the full list of the governor’s priorities for the special session, view ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann’s blog post here. Also, check out ATPE’s press release, and be sure to follow @TeachtheVote on Twitter for new developments.

 


SBECThe State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) has been meeting today in Austin, and ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann is there. She provided an update in this blog post on the items being discussed today by the board. They include plans to add a new early childhood teaching certificate mandated by the legislature recently, plus how Districts of Innovation are claiming exemptions from certification laws.

 


 

 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 2, 2017

Texas state legislators have gone home, at least temporarily. When might they return? Here is the latest advocacy news from ATPE:

 


ThinkstockPhotos-144283240On Monday, May 29, the 85th Legislature adjourned sine die, following a 140-day regular session marked by considerable conflict over important and not-so-important issues. The Legislature did reach an agreement on the state’s budget, which was the only bill constitutionally required to pass. However, the House and Senate took decidedly different approaches to their other priorities this session, as ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Canaday wrote in this blog post on Monday. School finance reforms sought by the House fell victim to a push for private school vouchers by the Senate. Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick both made late-session declarations that lawmakers needed to pass a bill regulating public bathroom use by transgender Texans and a bill changing requirements for elections before property tax increases, but neither measure made it beyond the finish line.

Another bill that did not pass was a sunset “safety net” bill designed to keep certain state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board, from ceasing to operate during the next two years. The failure of that bill to pass could alone force Gov. Abbott to call a special session, leading to speculation about which other topics might be added to the types of bills that could be considered during a special session. Lt. Gov. Patrick warned during the last week of the regular session that he would be urging the governor to include on any special session call various other “priorities” that the Senate passed but the House did not approve; those could include not only state-mandated bathroom restrictions to which many school districts and business leaders objected, but also private school vouchers and the anti-educator bill that would eliminate payroll deduction for educators’ professional membership dues. All of these were ATPE-opposed bills that were shut down during the regular session, largely thanks to the more moderate, common sense approach of the Texas House under the leadership of Speaker Joe Straus.

After hinting that he would make an announcement by the end of this week, Gov. Abbott told reporters today not to expect any announcement either today or during the weekend about his calling a special session. Be sure to tune in to Teach the Vote next week and follow us on Twitter for updates.

 


ThinkstockPhotos-177774022-docThe Legislature managed to pass important bills to keep the TRS-Care healthcare program for retired educators afloat for a few more years, and the TRS board of trustees now has responsibility for implementing the changes directed by lawmakers. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins attended today’s meeting of the TRS board and penned a blog post outlining the many changes that will take effect in 2018.

While the legislature passed no major bills pertaining to TRS-ActiveCare this session, the board is taking steps now to mitigate an anticipated shortfall for that program, too. Fortunately, no bills that would negatively affect the TRS pension plan, such as converting the defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution or hybrid design, gained traction this session. Check out Mark’s blog post for more on the legislative changes that will affect TRS and educators’ healthcare.

 


One of the most significant bills approved by the 85th Legislature this year was House Bill 22, aimed at reworking the A-F accountability system for school districts and campuses. On our blog this week, ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter answers a number of questions about what the bill does and areas in which Commissioner of Education Mike Morath will be tasked with rulemaking and additional interpretation of HB 22. Read Monty’s blog post for more information about changes coming soon to the A-F system.

 


Male lecturer looking at students writing in a classroomYet another topic that garnered significant discussion by the 85th Legislature this year was educator quality. The results were mixed, as ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann analyzed this week for our blog. A high-profile bill to stem educator misconduct and the problem often called “passing the trash” got the approval of lawmakers and has already been signed into law by Gov. Abbott. For more on that bill and several others relating to educator preparation and certification, check out Kate’s latest blog post here.

 


Next week, the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) will be meeting on Friday, June 9. We’ll have a report for you on that meeting, plus ongoing analysis of the legislative session that ended this week. ATPE will also bring you up-to-the-minute reporting on any announcements of a special session. As always, you can follow @TeachtheVote and individual members of the ATPE lobby team on Twitter for the most timely news from our team.

17_web_Spotlight_SummitATPE members are also encouraged to register to attend the ATPE Summit, July 10-12 in Austin, where our lobbyists will be presenting an in-person legislative update wrapping up the 85th legislative session and what it means for Texas public education.

 


 

TRS board approves major healthcare changes

TRS logoThe board of trustees for the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas met Friday to make changes to healthcare and retirement following the actions of the 85th Texas Legislature, which adjourned sine die on Monday.

Before delving into plan information, the board approved new contracts with CVS Caremark as the pharmacy benefit management (PBM) administrator for TRS-Care Standard, TRS-Care Part D, and TRS-ActiveCare. Staff then reviewed the two major pieces of legislation that will define healthcare and retirement benefits under TRS moving forward:

Senate Bill (SB) 1

The state budget covered roughly $480 million of the estimated $1 billion shortfall facing TRS-Care by increasing contributions by both the state and school districts, including one-time state supplemental funding of $182.6 million. While this prevented a worst-case scenario for retirees, the balance will unfortunately have to come from higher premiums and benefit reductions.

House Bill (HB) 3976

This bill represents a major structural overhaul of TRS-Care. It establishes two separate plans: A single High Deductible Plan for non-Medicare participants and a Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D Plan for Medicare participants.

Under HB 3976, TRS cannot charge a premium during the 2018-2021 plan years to disability retirees who retired as a disability retiree effective on or before January 1, 2017, who are currently receiving disability retirement benefits, and who are not eligible to enroll in Medicare. The bill eliminates the statutory requirement to provide a free healthcare plan for retiree-only coverage, but will provide free generic preventative maintenance medications for enrollees in the high deductible plan. The new program provides an opt-in window for retirees under the age of 65 who choose coverage elsewhere to opt-in to the Medicare Advantage Plan at age 65.

What’s next

On Friday, the board approved the new TRS-Care plans created under HB 3976. From September 1, 2017, to December 31, 2017, the agency will maintain the current TRS-Care 1, TRS-Care 2, and TRS-Care 3 Plans, such that FY 2017 will be an extended 16-month plan year. Deductibles and out-of-pocket accumulators will not restart on September 1, 2017. The agency plans to maintain current retiree premium contributions by plan, Medicare status, family size, and years of service.

New TRS-Care plans

Non-Medicare participants on the TRS-Care 1, TRS-Care 2, and TRS-Care 3 plans will be absorbed into the new TRS-Care Standard Plan. In-network coverage will include a $3,000/$6,000 deductible, $7,150/$14,300 maximum out-of-pocket limits, and 80/20% coinsurance. Out of network coverage will include a $6,000/$12,000 deductible, $14,300/$28,600 maximum out-of-pocket limits, and 60/40% coinsurance.

Medicare participants will be absorbed into the TRS-Care Medicare Advantage/Medicare Part D Plan, which includes a $500 deductible, $3,500 maximum out-of-pocket limit, 95/5% coinsurance, $500 IP hospital copay per stay, $250 OP hospital copay per visit, $65 ER copay, $35 urgent care copay, $5 PCP office visit copay, $10 specialist office visit copay, $0 preventive services copay, $5/$25/$50 retail pharmacy copay, and $15/$70/$125 mail order pharmacy copay.

TRS will make an alternative plan available for certain participants who are Medicare eligible but not enrolled in either Medicare Part A or Medicare Part B, or cannot access a provider through the TRS-Care Medicare Advantage Plan.

New premiums are scheduled to take effect January 1, 2018. A non-Medicare retiree only will see a monthly premium of $200, and a Medicare retiree only will see a monthly premium of $146. Premiums for retiree and spouse are $739/$590, retiree and children $433/$504, and retiree and family $1,074/$1,106.

The TRS-Care Medicare Advantage network is a PPO plan network with an out-of-network benefit equivalent to the in-network benefit. Providers do not need to be in network as long as a provider accepts Medicare and agrees to bill Humana, the TRS-Care vendor.

The agency has already begun the first phase of implementation, which involves communicating to participants the changes that will take effect January 1, 2018. These communications will include a monthly e-newsletter, direct mail correspondence, and online information. While these changes will increase the burdens on plan participants, they are estimated to keep TRS-Care positively funded until 2021.

TRS-ActiveCare Changes

The legislature did not pass any legislation affecting TRS-ActiveCare, which is a self-funded program, but the board did make significant plan changes on Friday.

The sole source of funding for TRS-ActiveCare is premiums. The state contributes $75 per month per employee through the school finance formulas, and districts contribute a minimum of $150 per month per employee, with some districts contributing more. Employees contribute the remainder of the projected gross premiums. Funding requirements for the state and districts have not changed since the program’s inception in 2002.

While in much better shape than TRS-Care, TRS-ActiveCare is facing a shortfall of just under $100 million in 2018, which has placed pressure on premiums. The agency’s goal is to balance premium increases against the need to build the fund balance to protect the plan. The target fund balance at the end of FY 2018 is one month of claims, or $158 million. Without plan design changes, staff suggested an average rate increase of 9.9 percent would be required to achieve the target ending fund balance.

With that in mind, the board approved a number of changes based on agency recommendations. Those on the TRS-ActiveCare-Select and TRS-ActiveCare-2 plans will see increased costs associated with out-of-network providers, and will see ER copays increase to $200 from $150. There are no changes planned regarding prescription drug benefits.

These changes will allow for a slightly smaller 8.1 percent average rate increase. TRS-ActiveCare-1HD rates will increase 2.9 percent for employee only, 8.4 percent for employee and spouse, 9.1 percent for employee and children, and 6.9 percent for employee and family. TRS-ActiveCare Select rates will increase 6.2 percent for employee only, 10.2 percent for employee and spouse, 7.1 percent for employee and children, and 16.8 percent for employee and family. TRS-ActiveCare-2 rates will increase 10.7 percent for employee only, 9.1 percent for employee and spouse, 1.9 percent for employee and children, and 25.5 percent for employee and family.

Other legislative changes

At Thursday’s meeting, executive director Brian Guthrie told board members “we are very pleased” with how the legislative session turned out for TRS. Three key bills related to the system passed within minutes of a crucial deadline late in the session. Debriefing the board, TRS governmental relations director Merita Zoga identified several additional items passed by the legislature related to TRS:

  • HB 89 prohibits governmental entities from contracting with or investing in a company that boycotts Israel.
  • SB 253 adds to the existing divestment statute, prohibiting TRS from investing in companies designated as terrorist organizations.
  • SB 252 prohibits government entities from contracting with companies doing business with Iran, Sudan, or a foreign terrorist organization.
  • SB 7, the teacher misconduct bill, includes language related to TRS. The bill strips the service retirement annuity from a TRS member who is convicted of felony sexual abuse, sexual assault, or improper relationship between educator and student. All or part of the annuity may be awarded instead to an innocent spouse.
  • SB 500 would strip the service retirement annuity of a member of a public retirement system, such as TRS or ERS, if the member is an elected official and is convicted of certain qualifying felonies, including bribery, corruption, perjury, and other offenses related to their official capacity.
  • HB 1428 would allow TRS to act as a mediator in balance billing disputes.

Staff pointed out that the legislature did not pass any bills related to a cost of living adjustment (COLA), TRS-ActiveCare, or pension studies. Other major bills affecting TRS include the following:

SB 1954

This bill allows Optional Retirement Program (ORP)-eligible employees who are not notified properly additional time to elect ORP participation. The proposed bill creates an error correction process for reporting an ORP employee to TRS when the employee is not eligible for TRS. The person would be restored to ORP participation and member, state, and employer contributions related to the incorrect reporting, plus interest, would be paid to the employee’s ORP account. Amounts contributed to TRS that are in excess of participant contributions due to ORP would be refunded to the individual.

SB 1663

SB 1663 provides a number of member friendly benefit and administrative changes. It allows the TRS board to go into executive session to discuss particular investment transactions, strategies, portfolios, and other potential transactions related to private investments if the board determines that deliberating or conferring in an open meeting would have detrimental effect on TRS’s negotiations with third parties or place TRS at a competitive disadvantage in the market. The bill provides TRS with the authority to charge late fees on late reports by reporting entities.

It further allows TRS to add an additional five years of service credit when determining whether an early age reduction is applicable and the amount of the reduction, for a 100 percent joint and survivor annuity payable at the death of an active member. The bill amends current law to provide that disability retirees with less than 10 years of service credit who choose a $150 per month annuity for the number of months of membership to allow their beneficiaries to receive any remaining member contributions as an additional death benefit if the disability retiree dies before the period ends. The bill also moves the TRS sunset review to 2025.

SB 1664

SB 1664 bill provides IRS code compliance, statutory corrections, and member friendly benefit changes. It provides additional time for TRS members to purchase sick and personal leave service credit at retirement and corrects an error referencing the TRS board rather than the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to certify state contributions to the ORP.

SB 1665

This bill continues the use of derivatives and external managers capped at 30 percent of total assets and repeals the sunset dates on the authorities.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: May 26, 2017

We’re counting down the last few days of the 85th legislative session. Here are the latest updates:


The 85th Texas Legislature is set to adjourn sine die on Monday, May 29. As the clock winds down on the regular session, ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins provides this update on the ongoing state budget negotiations:

ThinkstockPhotos-185034697_gavelcashLawmakers are within sight of fulfilling their only constitutional obligation: To pass a state budget for the next two years. Despite all the threats regarding bathrooms and tax elections, failure to pass a budget during the 140 days of regular session is the only circumstance that would automatically trigger a special session.

This week conferees from the House and Senate have busily worked to iron out differences between the two chambers on SB 1, the general appropriations act – AKA the budget. On Thursday, the ten negotiators released their conference committee report, the last step before the budget receives a final vote in the House and Senate. Earlier this week, the committee posted issue docket decisions outlining the negotiation points within each budget article.

The final budget agreement allocates $216.8 billion in total state and federal funds over the next two years, including $106.7 billion in state general revenue. The budget funds public education at current levels adjusted for enrollment growth, but does so in part by taking advantage of rising local property values to further reduce the share of state funding. A proposal by House leadership to provide roughly $1.8 billion in additional funding to public schools contingent upon a school finance reform bill was killed by the Senate, which stripped the proposal down to $500 million before killing the bill altogether by refusing an offer by the House to negotiate.

Lawmakers reduced funding in a number of areas, including eliminating funding for the governor’s high quality pre-K program. The budget will draw $1 billion from the $10 billion rainy day fund and defer a $2 billion payment to the highway fund in order to avoid further program cuts.

The state budget is eligible for final consideration before the full House and Senate on Saturday, at which point each chamber may either approve or reject the bill by an “up or down” vote. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and follow us on Twitter for updates this weekend.

 

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., there has been movement on drafting a federal budget. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann offers this report on the week’s developments:

cutting budget with scissor on wooden backgroundPresident Donald Trump’s full budget proposal was released Tuesday, and, as was outlined in his budget blueprint released earlier this year, he wants to cut the federal education budget by more than 13 percent. The cuts would total $9.2 billion under the most recent proposal and would include slashing over $2 billion for a program aimed at teacher and principal training as well as more than $1 billion for after-school programs.

The proposed federal budget would also maintain regular Title I funding at current levels, but dedicate just under $1.5 billion to pet programs of Secretary of Education Betsy Devos under the guise of “school choice.” Within that amount, $250 million would go toward creating the beginnings of a federal voucher program for private schools. (It is expected that the administration and Secretary Devos will separately push a type of voucher known as a tax credit scholarship when President Trump pushes forward with a tax reform plan.) The remaining money would go toward a funding structure known as Title I portability and charter schools, with the vast majority going to the former. Title I portability would allow public school students to take their federal funding with them as they go to the public schools of their choice. ATPE has expressed concern over this type of funding in a letter to members of Congress because “focusing funding on individual students would divert funding from schools that serve students living in high concentrations of poverty” and are in most need of the additional federal funding.

However, President Trump’s full budget proposal is just that, a proposal. Following the release of the proposal, U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chair Lamar Alexander stated, “Congress will write the budget and set the spending priorities. Where we find good ideas in the president’s budget, we will use them.” It is now up to Congress to develop a federal spending plan they can advance to the President for a signature. More details on the full proposal from the president can be read here.

 


Hopes for improved school funding and property tax relief were dashed this week when the Senate opted to doom House Bill (HB) 21, a school finance bill by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), rather than continue to negotiate its fate.

As we have been reporting on Teach the Vote, Huberty’s bill had broad support from the education community when it was approved by the House, offering an additional $1.6 billion in funding for public schools, hardship grants to help districts facing the loss of ASATR funding set to expire, and additional aid to students with dyslexia. However, the Senate chose to strip funding from the bill and use it instead as a vehicle for an educational savings account (ESA) voucher to pay for students with special needs to attend private or home schools. The Senate passed its version of HB 21 in the overnight hours Monday night/Tuesday morning by a vote of 21-10.

On Wednesday, the House discussed the Senate’s controversial changes to the bill. Chairman Huberty spoke passionately about the House’s efforts to find a school finance fix and lamented that the Senate had gutted the bill and stripped out its method of finance. House members also acknowledged the fact that passage of a school finance reform bill would be the only “direct” way that lawmakers could lower local property taxes. Rejecting the Senate’s version of the bill, Reps. Huberty, Trent Ashby, Ken King, Gary VanDeaver, and Diego Bernal were then appointed to serve on a conference committee for HB 21.

NO VOUCHERSThe House also voted on a few motions to instruct their conferees, which serve to give guidance to the conference committee on the will of the House as negotiations continue on a bill. The first motion to instruct was made by Rep. John Zerwas (R-Fulshear) who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee. It called for the conferees to reject any voucher language in the school finance bill, and the House approved that motion by a vote of 101-45. Next, Rep. Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton) offered a motion to instruct the conferees to look for ways to offer school choice (vouchers) to students with special needs. The House rejected that instruction with a vote of 47-89. The House also adopted a motion to instruct by Rep. Ken King urging conferees to seek additional money for hardship grants to help districts that are losing ASATR funds; that motion passed on a vote of 132-12.

With the House having sent another strong message rejecting vouchers in any form, HB 21 was again in the hands of the Senate to appoint its five members of a conference committee to try to hammer out an agreement that would offer some school finance relief. Senate leaders announced quickly that same afternoon that they would not appoint members to a conference committee for further negotiations on the bill, effectively sealing its fate.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was quick to point the finger at House leaders for killing the bill, saying he was “appalled” that the Senate’s voucher plan to help students with special needs was rejected. House Speaker Joe Straus responded that the House had tried to work on school finance until the Senate abandoned that effort. “The Senate has chosen to focus on sending taxpayer dollars to private schools,” Straus wrote in a statement. “Most House members don’t support that idea, as today’s vote once again showed.” Straus added, “Unfortunately, the Senate walked away and left the problems facing our schools to keep getting worse.”

The only real school finance-related legislation still alive at this point is in the form of an amendment the Senate added to HB 22, the A-F accountability bill still being considered. The Senate added language to that bill pulled from SB 2144 calling for the creation of a commission that would study school finance during the interim.

 


In a signing ceremony yesterday, Gov. Gregg Abbott enacted Senate Bill (SB) 7, a bill aimed at stemming and strengthening penalties for educator misconduct, including inappropriate relationships with students. The bill by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), which ATPE and other educator groups supported, will take effect September 1, 2017.

SB 7 requires automatic revocation of certificates of any educators who are required to register as sex offenders and requires educators applying for a new teaching job to disclose in an affidavit if they have ever been charged with or convicted of a crime involving misconduct with students. Some educators convicted of certain crimes involving children would lose their TRS pensions, too. The legislation expands current requirements for superintendents to report teacher misconduct to the State Board for Educator Certification by adding some new reporting requirements for school principals. SB 7 also requires school districts to adopt a policy on electronic communications between teachers and students, which many districts already have in place.

In an op-ed yesterday for the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, Gov. Abbott wrote, “We will protect our children from sexual predators in our classrooms. We will not allow a few rotten apples to abuse this position of trust.” Commissioner of Education Mike Morath also praised the new law in a blog post:

“Parents should be confident that our schools are places of learning and trust for all students. When violations of that trust occur, there should be consequences. Senate Bill 7 provides the Texas Education Agency, law enforcement and local school districts with additional tools to continue our work in combatting educator misconduct.”

 


Drugs and MoneyThe 85th Legislature has finally passed a bill to prevent the TRS-Care healthcare program for retired educators from going under. House Bill (HB) 3976 by Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) received the approval of both the House and Senate and has been sent to Gov. Abbott for his review. The bill raises costs and limits options for retirees, but it was viewed as must-pass legislation by ATPE and other educator groups concerned about saving the TRS-Care program from going bankrupt. If the bill becomes law, these changes will be implemented on Jan. 1, 2018, and the TRS Board of Trustees will have a few months to iron out the details of the new plan. For more on the history of the TRS-Care legislation, view this recent blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter who has followed this issue throughout the legislative session.

 


Among the bills that remain up in the air in these waning days of the legislative session are Senate Bill (SB) 463 by Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo). The bill would extend the law allowing for Individual Graduation Committees to decide if certain students may graduate despite failing a STAAR test. That law, enacted in 2015, is set to expire unless the legislature acts. Sen. Seliger’s bill as filed would have made the IGC law permanent, but some senators objected and gave it merely a two-year extension instead. House members, under the leadership of Chairman Huberty, voted to extend the bill’s life to 2021. Now the Senate has an opportunity to concur in the Senate’s changes to the bill or appoint a conference committee if further negotiations are desired. It is up to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to decide if he will give Sen. Seliger an opportunity to bring up the bill and allow the Senate to make such a choice. If the Senate declines to take any action, the bill will die and the IGC law will expire.

Also pending is House Bill (HB) 22 by Chairman Huberty, aimed at improving the state’s A through F accountability system. The Senate passed its version of that bill at around 2:30 am early Wednesday morning, and Chairman Huberty asked the House this afternoon not to concur with the Senate’s changes to the bill. The House therefore has appointed Huberty to serve on a conference committee for HB 22, joined by House Public Education Committee Vice Chairman Diego Bernal, Rep. Ken King, Rep. Gary VanDeaver, and Rep. Harold Dutton. Check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter for more on HB 22 and where it stands today.

Another bill most likely headed to a conference committee is Senate Bill 1839 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), which pertains to educator preparation and certification laws. It’s one of several ed prep bills that have been watched closely this session and undergone a number of changes.

Yet another bill still being considered is Rep. Gary VanDeaver’s (R-New Boston) HB 515, which began its life as a bill aimed at reduced state-mandated student testing. Along the way, the bill gained an amendment adding language from Rep. Ashby’s HB 1776 that would replace the state’s EOC test for U.S. history with the test administered nationally for citizenship purposes. The Senate made dramatic changes to the bill, stripping out much of the language pertaining to testing and instead calling for the State Board of Education to conduct an interim study of the social studies curriculum across multiple grades. This afternoon, on a motion by Rep. VanDeaver, the House voted to reject the Senate’s changes to the bill and appoint a conference committee instead. As with other bills, the conference committee must strike a deal by Saturday night to be voted on no later than Sunday by both the House and Senate. Otherwise, that bill will be declared dead, too.

A conference committee was already appointed on SB 179 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio), an anti-cyberbullying bill that ATPE supported. That conference committee has completed its work and submitted a report containing the agreed-upon bill language to be voted on by the House and Senate this weekend.

ThinkstockPhotos-476529187-hourglassOf course, there is also legislation dealing with high-profile political issues that have been identified by Lt. Gov. Patrick and Gov. Abbott as “must pass” bills before the session deadlines run out, including restrictions on the use of bathrooms by transgender students, changes to local property tax laws, and voter ID requirements, which remain undecided at this point. Also, bills to keep some state agencies operating for the next two years are dependent on the passage of sunset legislation that has not yet been finalized. Many will be watching this weekend to see if deals can be struck to avoid a special session. As always, stay tuned to Teach the Vote and @TeachtheVote on Twitter for the latest news.

 


We wish you all a peaceful Memorial Day!

Latest education developments in the 85th legislature

DASIHSWU0AA4SAhIt was a busy weekend for the Texas House and Senate, which took action to move forward several pieces of high-profile education legislation during meetings on Saturday and Sunday that stretched into the overnight hours. The regular legislative session is slated to end in just one week on Memorial Day, May 29, 2017. Here’s a look at some of the latest activity from ATPE’s lobbyists:

Budget

The House was in session for most of the day Saturday. Late that afternoon, senators and representatives serving on the conference committee for Senate Bill (SB) 1, held a public hearing to openly discuss the terms of a compromise for the state’s budget bill. The discussions lasted beyond midnight amid late calls from the governor for additional funding of governor’s office initiatives for economic development. The SB 1 compromise includes adding $480 million for retired educators’ healthcare (consisting of $350 million from the state and $130 million from school districts), which is contingent upon final passage of the TRS-Care bill. The conferees agreed on tapping the state’s Rainy Day Fund for one-time expenditures to repair aging state hospital facilities and purchase bulletproof vests for law enforcement officers. They’ll also use a payment deferral method to free up some needed cash.

The budget compromise entails a $530 million increase for public education, but that’s far less than the additional $1.6 billion that the House had proposed in its budget, contingent upon passage of Huberty’s school finance reform bill, House Bill (HB) 21. The final funding available for public schools will depend largely on what becomes of HB 21 now that the Senate has made dramatic changes to that bill, most notably by harnessing a private school voucher plan to it.

Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) told senators this afternoon that while the conference committee has adopted its report, there are still some housekeeping items to be worked out before the report is presented to the full House and Senate. She directed senators to the Legislative Budget Board’s website to view documents related to the report on the budget compromise.

Bathrooms

The House was back in session on Sunday, and one of the most watched moments was the debate on a school safety bill that became the vehicle for an amendment relating to gender-based bathroom policies for schools. SB 2078 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) and sponsored in the House by Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) was a noncontroversial bill intended to help school districts address their multi-hazard operations plans. But Rep. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall) successfully added a floor amendment to address bathroom usage in schools.

As adopted by the House on a 91-50 vote last night, the Paddie amendment requires schools to provide a single-occupancy restroom or changing facility for any student who requests an accommodation because he or she does not wish to use the facility corresponding to the student’s biological sex. Questions remain as to whether school districts will be forced to adopt or change any of their existing policies on bathrooms aside from any such requests for accommodations. The bill as amended passed on second reading late last night, and the House approved SB 2078 with the amendments on third reading today.

Now the bill heads back to the Senate for a determination of whether the House’s language, with its added bathroom-related amendments, will be acceptable or will require referral to a conference committee. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has already called the new language “ambiguous” in a statement to reporters today.

Healthcare

The full Senate took Saturday off and reconvened at 7 pm last night, taking up a couple of bills of great interest to the education community. First, the Senate unanimously passed HB 3976 by Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) to reform the TRS-Care healthcare program for retired educators. The proposed changes are a tough pill to swallow for many retirees, but will prevent the program from completely running out of money during the upcoming biennium. For more on the TRS-Care bill, read ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter’s blog post here.

Vouchers and School Finance

At around 11 pm Sunday night, the Senate began debating HB 21 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), the school finance bill that is now hosting the Senate’s controversial language calling for an education savings account voucher for students with special needs.

Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), the bill’s Senate sponsor and author of the voucher language, emphasized his opinion that the voucher likely would only be used by 5,000 students, or one percent of the current public school student population. He fielded questions from several senators, notably Sens. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) and Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio), who pointed out the problems with private school vouchers, such as parents being forced to give up the many rights and protections of state and federal law that students with special needs enjoy when they attend public schools. Opponents in the Senate also pointed out that voucher utilization rates have been considerably higher (and costlier) than one percent in other states that have passed vouchers, making the Senate’s version of HB 21 likely to produce a much higher price tag than being claimed. The Senate tabled a Rodriguez amendment that would have stripped the objectionable voucher language from the bill, and similarly rejected a Menendez amendment that called on private schools that receive voucher funds to comply with the laws that would otherwise protect special needs students attending public school. A handful of other floor amendments were added to the bill, mostly representing less significant bills that had died on the calendar this session.

The Senate passed its substitute version of HB 21 on second reading at around 1 am this morning. After adjourning for a couple of minutes and reconvening, the Senate passed its version of HB 21 on third reading at around 1:30 this morning. The final floor votes on the bill were 21-10 with all Republican senators plus Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) voting for HB 21; all other Democratic senators opposed the bill. The bill now heads back to the Texas House where it’s likely to receive a chilly reception.

This afternoon, the House advanced another school finance-related bill on second reading. SB 2144 by Sen. Larry Taylor, sponsored in the House by Rep. Huberty, would create a commission to study school finance during the interim and make recommended fixes to the next legislature. Laying out the less significant study bill today, Rep. Huberty used the opportunity to complain about the Senate’s changes to his HB 21, which had the effect of stripping out much of the extra funding proposed by the House for public schools.

Testing

Upon adjournment of the Senate in the overnight hours, the Senate Education Committee called a last-minute meeting to take a vote on a pending bill relating to student testing. Rep. Gary VanDeaver’s (R-New Boston) HB 515 as filed was an ATPE-supported bill designed to eliminate some state STAAR tests not required by federal law. Earlier this month, the full House amended the bill to add language from another bill (HB 1776 by Ashby) that would call on school districts to administer the test for U.S. citizenship in lieu of a state-adopted history test. The Senate committee approved a substitute version of HB 515 early this morning that strips out the citizenship test requirement and instead calls for the State Board of Education to study the alignment and coursework of required social studies curricula for grades 8-12. The Senate’s committee substitute bill also allows school districts to use SAT, ACT, and TSI tests as alternative assessments for graduation purposes. The full Senate must still pass HB 515 by Wednesday.

Today, the House gave preliminary approval to Sen. Kel Seliger’s (R-Amarillo) SB 463 aimed at extending the law allowing individual graduation committees for certain students unable to pass STAAR tests required for graduation. The House agreed to a floor amendment by Rep. Huberty that will extend the ATPE-supported law until 2021. The bill must pass on third reading, and then as with many of these other bills, the Senate will have a chance either to accept the House’s version of the bill in its current form or send the bill to a conference committee during this last week of the legislative session.

Now what?

There is a lingering question on many stakeholders’ minds now: “Will there be a special session?” Last week, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made public demands for a special session if the House failed to pass a property tax reform bill and a bill on transgender bathroom policies. Over the weekend, Gov. Abbott took unusual steps to declare an emergency on changing the state’s voter ID laws, signaling that issue as another “must pass” item for the regular session. Now that the House has added language relating to all three of these issues onto other bills, it remains to be seen whether those measures will be deemed acceptable by the Senate or if the governor will be inclined to call a special session. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and follow us on Twitter for the latest updates.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: May 19, 2017

A recap of the week’s education-related news from ATPE Governmental Relations:

 


This week in the Texas capital we witnessed a tug-of-war between the state’s top legislative leaders as the end of the 85th legislative session looms.

Tomorrow, May 20, is the last day for Senate bills to make it out of House committees, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) has been vocal in complaints about his conservative Senate priorities stalling in the more moderate House. At the same time, the Senate has held back on advancing an important sunset bill that would keep several state agencies in operation and has tacked controversial Senate-preferred amendments onto major House bills. A prime example is House Bill (HB) 21, the school finance bill that turned into a private school voucher measure when it came out of a Senate committee last week. That bill is slated for a Senate floor debate this weekend, and ATPE members are being urged to contact their lawmakers about the need to pass school finance reforms without vouchers.

Dollar banknotes heapThe impasse between the two chambers means that we’ve yet to see any details of a potential compromise on the state budget. That bill, Senate Bill (SB) 1, remains pending in a conference committee.

Earlier this week, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) told reporters that it was imperative for legislators to pass a property tax reform bill and a legislation regulating public bathrooms. Soon thereafter, Speaker of the House Rep. Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) sent a letter to Lt. Gov. Patrick Monday evening identifying a different pair of bills that must be passed this session in order to avoid the need for a special session: the budget, which lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass, and a sunset safety net bill that keeps several state agencies from being forced to shut down. As reported by The Texas Tribune, Straus also used the opportunity in his letter to urge the Senate to act on other House priorities, including some education concerns:

“We certainly understand that some bills that are passed in one chamber will not have the support to move forward in the other,” Straus wrote. “Still, as the House continues to pass priority Senate bills, I respectfully ask that the Senate also consider acting soon on issues that are priorities of the House, including public education, school accountability and testing reform, child protection, mental health, cybersecurity and preserving health insurance for retired teachers.”

In response to the Straus letter, Patrick called a press conference on Wednesday and reiterated that the bathroom bill and property tax bill, SB 2, were top priorities that must be addressed. Patrick indicated that the Senate would take no vote on the sunset bill until the House acted on those two priorities. Threatening a special session, which only the governor has power to call, Patrick added that he would ask for many more of the Senate’s conservative priorities, such as school vouchers, to be added to any such special session call. The lieutenant governor declined to answer any reporters’ questions.

Abbott stated after the press conference that there was no reason lawmakers couldn’t address his priorities during the regular session without the need for calling a special session. Straus issued a statement expressing “optimism” that the two chambers would “produce a reasonable and equitable compromise on the budget,” and noted that the property tax bill, SB 2, was on the House calendar and scheduled for debate. (Since then, SB 2 has experienced a number of delays and challenges, including a point of order that could defeat the bill on a technical rules violation.) While holding out hope for avoiding a special session, Straus also criticized the Senate in his written statement for endangering a school finance fix that would also provide property tax relief for homeowners:

“The House made a sincere effort to start fixing our school finance system, but the Senate is trying to derail that effort at the 11th hour,” Straus wrote in reference to HB 21. “The Senate is demanding that we provide far fewer resources for schools than the House approved and that we begin to subsidize private education – a concept that the members of the House overwhelmingly rejected in early April.”

The Senate has until Wednesday to hear most remaining House bills on second reading. It remains to be seen whether enough common ground will be found to avoid a special session. As we head into the last full week of the regular session, stay tuned to Teach the Vote and be sure to follow us on Twitter for the latest developments.

 


Drugs and MoneyA number of high-profile education bills are on the Senate’s calendar for floor debate. Today’s calendar includes HB 21 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), the school finance bill referenced above to which the Senate has attached an educational savings account voucher provision and reduced funding for school districts. Also on tap for a likely vote today is Rep. Trent Ashby’s (R-Lufkin) bill dealing with TRS-Care, HB 3976. For more on the measure to change retired educators’ healthcare options, check out this comprehensive blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter. Also, check out today’s blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann with the latest on bills acted upon in the Senate this week.

 


Among the many measures still pending near the end of the legislative session are bills dealing with testing and accountability. House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) has authored HB 22, a bill crafted with educator input aimed at improving the state’s A-F accountability rating system for schools. As approved by the House, the bill would condense the rated domains from five to three and eliminate the overall summative grade, deemed one of the most controversial aspects of the A-F system. This week, the Senate Education Committee heard HB 22, and Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) opted to replace the bill’s language with his plan taken from another bill, SB 2051. As substituted, the bill does not provide nearly as much relief, prompting ATPE and other educator groups to voice concerns about it during the Thursday hearing. The committee also heard from Commissioner of Education Mike Morath about the bill. For more on that hearing, check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann, as well as related coverage from The Texas Tribune.

Another high-profile bill being closely watched by the education community is Sen. Kel Seliger’s (R-Amarillo) SB 463. That bill would extend the option for individual graduation committees (IGCs) to help college- and career-ready students unable to pass STAAR tests through 2019. Seliger, who authored the original law creating IGCs in 2015, hoped to make the statute permanent, but some groups that oppose the provision have insisted on a shorter time period. The House Public Education Committee advanced the bill this week, as reported by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins, but time is running short for the bill to be placed on a calendar for floor debate.

Both the House and Senate education committees will be holding formal meetings today during breaks from the floor action to vote on additional bills.

 


ATPE member Stephanie Stoebe testifies before the House Public Education Committee, May 18, 2017.

ATPE member Stephanie Stoebe testifies before the House Public Education Committee, May 18, 2017.

During a House Public Education Committee hearing on Thursday, Round Rock ATPE member Stephanie Stoebe was among several educators to testify against a bill that would water down educator preparation standards. SB 1278 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) would prevent educator preparation programs from being held accountable for their candidates’ performance on certain educator certification exams in subjects deemed shortage areas, and the bill also allows individuals with five days’ experience working as a substitute teacher or teacher’s aide to count that work as required field experience rather than student teaching. The bill is being pushed by some of the state’s largest for-profit alternative certification providers.

Stoebe, a former Texas teacher of the year, testified about the importance of having properly trained teachers in classrooms that serve some of our most vulnerable populations. She urged the legislature not to roll back improvements made in rules by the State Board for Educator Certification this year to impose higher standards for educator preparation programs. ATPE also joined with a number of other educator groups in submitting a written statement in joint opposition to SB 1278.

Click here to watch video of the hearing (and view Stoebe’s testimony beginning at 1:26:11 on the archived video file). Also, view more details on the hearing in ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins’s blog post here.

ThinkstockPhotos-487217874_breakingUPDATE: Just this afternoon, the House Public Education Committee held a formal meeting to take votes on some of the bills heard earlier this week. The committee voted against sending SB 1278 to the full House. Those voting against the bill were the committee’s vice-chairman, Rep. Diego Bernal, (D-San Antonio), plus Reps. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont), Ken King (R-Canadian), Linda Koop (R-Dallas), and Morgan Meyer (R-Dallas). Chairman Huberty voted for SB 1278, along with Reps. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston), Lance Gooden (R-Terrell), and Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston). The committee also voted down a trio of charter school bills: SB 1061, SB 1838, and SB 1883, plus SB 1886 that would have created an Inspector General’s office within the Texas Education Agency. Bills advanced by the committee today were Senate Bills 801, 825, 1177, 1553 (committee substitute), 1659, 2084, and 2141.

 


Update on TRS-Care legislation

Drugs and MoneyThe Texas Senate is expected to vote soon on House Bill (HB) 3976 by Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin), a bill to reform the state’s healthcare program for retired educators. The Texas House approved the bill unanimously earlier this month. Here’s a look at the background and history of the legislation, as well as its current status.

Part I: How did we get here?

For at least the past four years, the TRS retiree health insurance program known as TRS-Care, has been headed toward a financial disaster. During the 83rd legislative session in 2013, the legislature began supplementing formula funding for TRS-Care to cover a projected shortfall. In the 84th legislative session in 2015, lawmakers increased the amount of supplemental funds to $768 million again to cover the TRS-Care shortfall. Covering the projected shortfall this session would take more than $1 billion above and beyond what the current funding formulas call for. That amount, already considered unsustainable, is only projected to rise in future years.

The issues driving TRS-Care toward disaster are runaway health care inflation and a statutory requirement to offer a free health insurance option.

TRS-Care presently has three funding streams: premiums associated with TRS-Care 2 and TRS-Care 3, since TRS-Care 1 is free; formula funding generated from the state, school districts, and active TRS members; and Medicare reimbursements from those over 65 who are on Medicare. The formula funded part of the equation is based on active TRS member payroll. Specifically, the state pays 1 percent of payroll into the fund while school districts pay .55 percent and active members pay .25 percent. Active TRS members’ total payroll generally increases over time at about 2 percent each year. This in turn means the formula funding for TRS-Care similarly increases over time at about 2 percent.

ThinkstockPhotos-177774022-docUnfortunately, healthcare costs have increased at over 7 percent annually for many years. This has led to a situation where the costs for TRS to pay healthcare claims has dramatically exceeded the funding available to pay for those claims, and the gap between funding and costs is only growing.

Without the legislature writing a check to cover the funding gap described above, TRS-Care would go into what is known as a death spiral. TRS would be forced to dramatically raise the premiums on TRS-Care 2 and 3, which are the current paid options offered to retirees, in order to cover the cost of all TRS-Care claims. The dramatic increase in the cost of these optional plans would drive more retirees to choose TRS-Care 1, the free option. As more retirees migrated to TRS-Care 1, the funding stream from premiums would dry up, further increasing the gap between revenueand the cost of paying claims, and the whole system would collapse.

How has the state responded?  The short answer is – not well!

State lawmakers currently have, and have previously had, only three options for addressing the TRS-Care problem. One, they can work to legitimately bring down the costs of retiree health care. Two, they can pay the additionally costs. Three, they can shift the costs to someone other than the state, i.e. retirees, school districts, and active teachers.

Legitimately bringing down healthcare costs, while likely possible, is challenging at the state level and at best a long-term process. Much of what impacts healthcare costs involves federal law over which state legislators have little or no control. Effectively that leaves as the only viable options putting in more money, either from the state or from somewhere else.

Knowing that this problem was approaching, legislators could have taken action six or eight years ago and aggressively pushed TRS-Care participants toward healthier and therefore cheaper outcomes, eliminated the free option under TRS, and at the same time increased the TRS-care formulas. Had they made these changes back then, before TRS-Care was facing a giant funding deficit, the pain to the state and to retirees would have been very minimal. However, back when these issues weren’t yet urgent, it was easier to keep ongoing state costs at a minimum and keep the potent voting block of retired teachers happy by ignoring future realities. Even when deficits between TRS funding and the cost of paying claims began to appear over the last two sessions, while times were good and state coffers were flush, it was easier to simply write one-time checks to prop up the system and ignore the oncoming train wreck.

Now that state revenues are lean and the TRS-Care deficit has grown into a billion dollar hole, it’s too late to reap the slow savings associated with bringing down costs. Lawmakers are unwilling to take on billion dollar ongoing funding increases, and the pain that retirees will experience from the state’s shifting the cost of covering the funding gap to them will be substantial, and in some cases, possibly lethal.

Part II: Where are we now?

The Senate State Affairs committee has legislative oversight for TRS-related issues in the upper chamber, and it is chaired by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston). Having no intention of asking her colleagues to fund the TRS-Care deficit for a third session, Sen. Huffman starting crafting a plan during last year’s interim that was designed primarily to shift the cost of paying for TRS-Care to retirees. Stakeholders, including active and retired teachers, were given an opportunity to provide their input at one perfunctory hearing. However, by the time of that hearing, the majority of the plan that was to become Senate Bill (SB) 788 was already in place.

In early February 2017, SB 788 was filed. As originally filed the bill eliminated TRS-Care plans 1-3 and replaced them with two plans: one plan for retirees under the age of 65 and one plan for retirees age 65 and older.

  • The under 65 plan was a high deductible plan with a first deductible of $4,000. After the participant hit $4,000 in out-of-pocket costs, the plan would have transitioned to offering 80/20 coinsurance coverage up to a maximum out-of-pocket cost of $7,150. After hitting the max out-of-pocket cost in a given plan year, the plan would have covered additional in-network costs at 100 percent. Like all high deductible plans, there are no medical or drug co-payments; you simply pay 100 percent (or 20 percent after the first $4,000 deductible has been met) of the full contracted price for the drug or medical service. As filed, the SB 788 plan was projected to require premiums of $430 a month. Thus, the total annual cost for participants covered by the plan would have been between $5,160 and $12,310. (For perspective, the average TRS annuity is approximately $24,000 a year.)
  • The 65 and over plan in SB 788 would have replaced all current TRS plans with a Medicare Advantage plan. Under a Medicare Advantage plan, Medicare is the primary insurance and the advantage plan is supplemental insurance designed to cover what Medicare does not. The deducible for this plan was projected to be $500 with monthly premiums of $140.

ThinkstockPhotos-162674067-pillsEven with these changes delineated under SB 788, TRS projected that TRS-Care would still have a funding deficit of approximately $300 million during the upcoming biennium and increasing deficits in subsequent years. As filed, the Senate plan did not increase the TRS-Care funding formulas. Instead, the Senate envisioned writing another one-time supplemental check to cover the balance of this biennium’s deficit, leaving a continuing and growing problem for future legislators to address.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of active and retired teacher advocates and receptive House members, the plans for TRS-Care while far from perfect have continued to improve over the course of this legislative session. SB 788 has been left pending, as the House bill, HB 3976, continues to proceed.

As it stands today, the TRS-Care bill moving forward still eliminates the current structure and replaces it with two age-dependent options.

  • The under 65 plan is still a high deductible plan with an out-of-pocket first deductible of $3,000 and maximum out-of-pocket cost of $7,150. The monthly premium will start at $200 a month for the first year and will increase for the following three years to approximately $370 a month. The plan also includes language that lets a TRS retiree opt out of the pre-65 plan and opt back into TRS for the 65-and-over plan once the retiree becomes Medicare eligible. Additionally, members under 65 who have retired due to a disability before January 1, 2017, will not have to pay premiums for the first four years. The plan will also cover a list of generic maintenance drugs, such as blood pressure and cholesterol medications, free of charge.
  • The 65-and-over plan is essentially the same as filed, but TRS at the request of multiple legislators is committed to expanding access to medical providers willing to take the TRS-Care Medicare Advantage plan. Restricted access to doctors has been one of the primary concerns about the Medicare Advantage plan.

In addition to better plan design, HB 3976 as it currently stands increases the state’s share of the funding formulas from 1 percent to 1.25 percent and increases the district’s share from .55 percent to .75 percent. The active employee share is not being increased at this time. These increases in formula funding give some assurance of a continued increase in regular appropriated spending in future years. This is a very important step for the continued existence of the retired educators’ health insurance program.

For those educators who have retired, especially those under age 65, or for those considering retirement in the near future, the changes to TRS-Care contemplated in SB 788 and HB 3976 are a lot to consider. ATPE members may contact our Governmental Relations team if you have specific questions about the bill. We also highly encourage you to contact TRS directly for questions about your retirement or your specific coverage questions about TRS-Care. You can contact Senate author Sen. Huffman or House author Rep. Ashby if you want to express your support, opposition, or any commentary on the legislation. Please remember to be courteous and respectful if you choose to contact one or both of the legislators, and remember that while this bill is not by any stretch perfect, TRS-Care health insurance will cease to exist altogether if no bill passes at all.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: May 5, 2017

Here are education news stories you might have missed this week from ATPE Governmental Relations:

 


ThinkstockPhotos-455285291_gavelA settlement agreement was executed Wednesday between ATPE and three other teacher groups that sued the state over the commissioner’s T-TESS rules for teacher evaluation. Under terms of the settlement, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath will revise the T-TESS rules to eliminate requirements that districts use four specific methods, including controversial Value-Added Measures, to evaluate student growth for purposes of teacher appraisals.

Read more about the settlement here.

 


ThinkstockPhotos-99674144We’ve reached the 117th day of the 85th legislative session with only three full weeks left for lawmakers to pass a state budget. Monday, May 8, is the first of several important session deadlines approaching quickly: the last day for House committees to report out House bills. House bills that don’t make it out of a House committee by then will be considered procedurally dead, although many “dead” bills can still resurface in the form of companion bills or amendments to other bills. Committees, especially on the House side, had a busy week of hearings ahead of the deadlines, and several late nights of floor debate. The House is scheduled to hold a Saturday session tomorrow, too.

Several significant education bills made it through either the House or Senate chamber this week, as reported by ATPE’s lobbyists. In the Senate, a popular bill passed to extend the law allowing the continuation of individual graduation committees for certain high school students unable to pass all required STAAR tests. Sen. Kel Seliger’s (R-Amarillo) SB 463 now heads to the House for consideration. The Senate also approved an amended version of SB 179 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio), an anti-bullying measure known as David’s Law. Other bills passing the Senate this week dealt with educator certification, charter schools, and a study on school finance. For more about the Senate’s work this week, check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.

In the lower chamber, House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) saw two more of his most significant bills pass the full House this week. HB 22 improves the state’s “A through F” accountability system for schools by condensing the number of domains from five to three and eliminating the overall summative grade that would have been assigned to schools. An ATPE-supported floor amendment by Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston) also calls for the Texas Education Agency to supply narrative descriptions of the ratings assigned in an effort to help parents and the public better understand their significance. Another ATPE-supported floor amendment by Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) that would have further reduced the emphasis on student test scores in the accountability system was rejected. Huberty’s HB 23 also got a nod of approval from the House; the bill creates a grant program to help public schools, including charter schools, offer specialty services for students with disabilities. An attempted floor amendment by Rep. Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton) that would have funded private school vouchers was withdrawn during the debate. The House also approved Rep. VanDeaver’s HB 515, an ATPE-supported bill that reduces mandatory testing. Also, HB 3976 by Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin), offering changes to try to shore up the TRS-Care health insurance program for retired educators, passed the House on a 140-0 vote yesterday.

Numerous bills made it past the House Public Education Committee this week as reported by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins. For complete details, check out his latest blog posts here, here, and here.

 


 

 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 7, 2017

It was another big week at the Texas Capitol. Here’s the latest news from ATPE:


The Texas House passed its version of the general state budget bill in the early morning hours of April 7 after nearly 16 hours of lively debate. Senate Bill (SB) 1 provides for appropriations for state needs over the next two fiscal years. It also sends a strong message about attitudes in the House toward private school vouchers.

As approved unanimously by the Senate on March 28, the $106.3 billion bill provided for school enrollment growth and needs of the Foundation School Program, but did little to address the looming funding crisis for TRS-Care or add any additional support for public education to offset cuts from recent years. The House Appropriations Committee, chaired by Rep. John Zerwas (R-Fulshear), substituted its own language into the bill during a March 29 committee hearing, and then the House considered hundreds of additional amendments in yesterday’s floor debate.

Lobbyists at budget debate

ATPE Lobbyists Kate Kuhlmann, Mark Wiggins, and Monty Exter awaited the House’s budget vote Thursday night.

As finally passed, the House’s version of SB 1 creates a $218.2 billion budget, which includes tapping into the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund (rainy day fund) to the tune of $2.5 billion to help address critical needs like an extra $500 million for retired educators’ rising healthcare costs. The final House vote on the bill was 131-16, well above the two-thirds threshold needed for accessing the rainy day funds.

Leading into yesterday’s floor debate, the House Calendars Committee had already adopted a “put and take” rule requiring that any amendment to the budget that proposed spending more money in one area must cut an equal or greater amount of spending from another area of the budget. That rule resulted in several heated arguments among House members as representatives looked to raid each other’s favored programs for funding sources.

Voucher vote boardWithout question, though, the most dramatic votes of the night included multiple votes taken to prohibit the funding of private school vouchers. The House first considered Amendment #8 by Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi) to prohibit the use of certain state funds provided to the Comptroller for private school vouchers. At ATPE’s request, Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston) filed Amendment #9, an amendment to Herrero’s amendment, to ensure that the legislature could not spend any public funds on private school vouchers. ATPE supported both of these amendments, which the House passed overwhelmingly. Freshman Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) offered another amendment #10 to try to carve out an exception that would allow the legislature to fund vouchers for low-income families, but the House similarly rejected that measure by tabling the Cain amendment. View the unofficial vote breakdown for these amendments here. ATPE thanks all the legislators who voted to prevent the legislature from wasting taxpayer dollars on unregulated private and home schools and appreciates all the educators who took time to contact their legislators about these important votes.

The House budget votes this week spell disaster for the voucher legislation heavily favored by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott. The primary voucher bill, SB 3 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), passed the Senate on March 30 by an 18 to 13 vote. Leaders in the House including House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty had already expressed doubt that the voucher bill would survive after being sent to the lower chamber. Yesterday’s budget votes punctuate that sentiment, evidencing a clear lack of support for vouchers this session in the Texas House. For more on the significance of yesterday’s voucher-related budget votes, read this article from The Texas Tribune republished on our blog.

 


Earlier this week, the House Public Education Committee heard a number of bills dealing with special education and also approved a bill aimed at improving the state’s much-criticized A-through-F accountability system for school campuses. As ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins reported on our blog, the committee unanimously passed Chairman Dan Huberty’s (R-Kingwood) House Bill 22 on Tuesday.

The committee will meet again on Tuesday, April 11, with a lengthy agenda. Its Subcommittee on Educator Quality will meet Monday, April 10, to consider several bills pertaining to educator preparation and certification. ATPE will be there to weigh in on bills of interest, of course. Stay tuned for more details next week on our Teach the Vote blog.

 


TRS logoThe Teacher Retirement System (TRS) board of trustees also met this week. ATPE Political Involvement Coordinator Edwin Ortiz attended the April 6 meeting and provided this report.

First, TRS investment managers shared news that the overall pension fund is performing considerably well despite economic uncertainty leading up to the 2016 elections. The fund is actuarially sound and has enough money to pay for its retirement benefit obligations until 2048.

The board meeting also addressed cyberattack prevention and defense measures being undertaken by the TRS staff. With cybersecurity threats dominating the news lately, TRS has been taking the necessary steps to secure members’ information by implementing safeguards that would prevent any cyberattackers from gaining access to the TRS system. Hackers are becoming bolder and using every method to gain access to vital information such as Social Security and bank information, but TRS staff along with security vendors are working to keep one step ahead of cyber criminals.

Finally, TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie provided the board with a legislative update. Mr. Guthrie explained that he and his staff are tracking various bills and working closely with certain legislative offices on specific pieces of legislation that are of concern. One such bill is Senate Bill (SB) 788 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) that would reform TRS-Care. The bill sparked some discussion at Thursday’s board meeting because of sweeping changes it proposes, including the elimination of TRS-Care 1, 2, and 3. As it’s currently written, SB 788 would require a high-deductible plan for participants under the age of 65 and a Medicare Advantage plan for anyone eligible for Medicare.  Mr. Guthrie indicated that he would continue to work with the stakeholders to ensure that retirees feel a minimal impact, but agreed that something needed to be done this session because of the increasing healthcare costs.

ATPE members can find additional information about TRS bills being considered this session by logging into Advocacy Central.

 


ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann provided a blog update on this week’s work by the Senate Education Committee. Its deliberations included some controversial bills relating to home school students and charter school partnerships. Read more in Kate’s post here.

Also this week, the Senate Committee on State Affairs heard SB 179 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) to address the growing problem of cyberbullying. ATPE supports the bill, which has been named David’s Law in memory of San Antonio teenager David Molak who tragically took his own life after being cyberbullied. The bill calls for tougher civil and criminal penalties for those who use electronic messaging to urge victims to commit suicide, and provides for prompt response and notifications when school officials learn about cyberbullying incidents.

 


 

Senate committee approves budget proposal

ThinkstockPhotos-185034697_gavelcashThe committee substitute to Senate Bill (SB) 1, the Senate’s budget bill, was voted favorably out of the Senate Finance Committee on a vote of 15 to 0 this morning. The SB 1 committee substitute, which appropriates $106.3 billion in general revenue, reflects all of the recommended modifications to individual articles of the budget made by the work groups and adopted by the full Finance Committee.

In her comments, committee chairwoman Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) stated that SB 1 fully funds the Foundation School Program (FSP), including $2.6 billion for enrollment growth. Nelson also touted $25 million in spending for broadband expansion through the e-Rate program; $65 million to a new public / private partnership for pre-K (the committee substitute cuts $180 million in pre-K grants from SB 1 as it was originally filed); and $316 million to fund SB 788 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), which would reform TRS-Care.

Senator Royce West (D-Dallas) probed staff from the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) on how to reconcile claims that SB1 fully funds the FSP while spending nearly $1.4 billion less in general revenue on the program. In response, LBB staff confirmed that SB 1 does fund the amount that current law calls for in FSP entitlements, but the funding level is $1.4 billion lower this session because increases in local property values mean that less funding is required through state general revenue. Due to this continued supplanting of state funding with local property taxes, the proportion of the state’s share of FSP funding is projected to decline to 38% or less by the end of the biennium.

SB 1 as substituted is expected to be brought up for a vote on the floor of the full Senate on Tuesday, March 28.