Tag Archives: TRS

Congress releases final tax bill

The U.S. House and Senate have finalized a conference tax bill that is expected to be voted on by each body over the course of next week. After the individual chambers passed their own bills pertaining to reforming provisions of the current tax code, a conference committee was appointed to work out the differences in the bills. The final bill must now receive the support of both chambers and the signature of the president before it becomes law.

ATPE wrote members of the Texas delegation last week to urge members of the conference committee and leaders in both chambers to stand with teachers on two issues: maintaining a credit for educators who spend personal money on classroom supplies and omitting a potential new tax on investments of public employee pensions like the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas. ATPE is pleased to report that the final bill reflects our requests on both issues.

The educator expense deduction was maintained at up to $250 a year, giving educators who use money from their own paychecks a nominal but meaningful credit for at least a portion of what is spent to give all students and classrooms access to needed supplies. The House bill originally scrapped the deduction altogether, while the Senate bill doubled the max deduction to as much as $500.

The Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT), as it related to public pensions, was ultimately scrapped under the final bill. The House bill would have applied the tax to public pension investments, including the TRS trust fund, which could have weakened its financial soundness by subjecting it to new additional tax liability. The Senate’s bill did not apply the new tax to public pension investments.

Another issue that garnered significant attention was a provision termed to be one aimed at “school choice” and was included in varying forms under both bills. The Senate’s provision on the topic was added in the final hours of debate by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). The final bill includes a negotiated version of the provision, which expands spending eligibility for 529 college savings accounts. If the bill becomes law, parents will be able to use the money they’ve saved in a 529 account to pay for up to $10,000 a year in K-12 education expenses, including at private schools.

ATPE appreciates the conference committee’s final decision on both the educator expense deduction and the UBIT. We also appreciate the help of legislators and leaders who advocated on behalf educators. High-profile provisions of the final plan include a reduction of the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent, a smaller top tax rate for individuals (at 37 percent instead of just under 40), omission of the Obamacare-era tax fine for those who don’t buy health insurance, and a cap on the deduction of state and local taxes (SALT) at $10,000.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Dec. 15, 2017

As you’re preparing for a holiday break, here’s a look at this week’s education news from ATPE:


As ATPE and other associations are working to encourage the education community to get out the vote in the 2018 elections, our GOTV efforts are rankling some officeholders and the special interests that have supported them financially. Seemingly frightened by the prospect of high voter turnout among educators, at least one lawmaker is complaining about school districts fostering a culture of voting among their staffs and students. As ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins reported yesterday on our blog, Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) is asking Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to issue a legal opinion to try to stifle the nonpartisan voter education efforts being spearheaded by the Texas Educators Vote coalition, of which ATPE is a member.

ATPE and other groups involved in the movement were quick to defend the nonpartisan work of the coalition, which is comprised of several groups that do not endorse candidates at all. The League of Women Voters, for example, tweeted, “The League’s mission is Empowering Voters. Defending Democracy! We are proud to partner with Texas Educators Votes and support their mission to create a culture of voting in Texas.”

Some educators naturally questioned why a sitting state senator would want to dissuade educators from voting and teaching students about the importance of voting. “Why would a leader not want school boards to adopt a resolution that encourages students, faculty, and staff to #vote?” asked former ATPE State President Cory Colby (@EffectualEdu) on Twitter. Another educator (@drdrbrockman) tweeted, “Looks like @TeamBettencourt doesn’t want educators to turn out to vote. Nothing in the Texas Educators Vote resolution pushes particular candidates or electoral outcomes.” ATPE member Rita Long commented on our blog, “I will vote in every election and encourage every citizen to vote. It is my right and privilege to have a voice in our elections. Educators must use their votes to have a voice in what is happening in public education. Our students are our future. Education issues should be a top priority with every American.”

Responding to the growing criticism on social media, Sen. Bettencourt doubled down on his unfounded claim that the coalition was using public school resources to promote particular candidates or ballot measures. The senator has not yet identified any examples of particular candidates allegedly being promoted by way of the coalition’s GOTV efforts.

By law the Attorney General’s office has six months to respond to Bettencourt’s request for an opinion, but AG Paxton is likely to issue a ruling ahead of the 2018 primaries. Several education groups involved in the coalition efforts will be submitting briefs to the AG’s office in the coming weeks. Stay to tuned to Teach the Vote for updates.

Related content: As part of our ongoing effort to encourage educators to participate in the 2018 primary and general elections as informed voters, be sure to check out our candidate profiles right here on our nonpartisan Teach the Vote website. This election cycle, we’re featuring profiles of every candidate running for a Texas legislative seat, State Board of Education, governor, and lieutenant governor. Profiles includes incumbents’ voting records on education-related bills, responses to our candidate survey, contact information for the campaigns, and additional information compiled by ATPE’s lobby team. New information is being added daily as we learn more about the candidates. If candidates in your area have not yet answered our candidate survey, please encourage them to do so. Inquiries about Teach the Vote and our candidate survey may be sent to government@atpe.org.

 

 


The U.S. Congress conference committee established to hash out disagreements between the U.S. House and U.S. Senate Republican tax plans has come to an agreement on a final plan. The committee met Wednesday to review the plan in a public hearing. Much of the high-profile provisions of the final plan have been discussed in public and reported by the media. For example, the corporate tax rate would be reduced from 35 to 21 percent, the top tax rate for individuals would go from almost 40 to 37 percent, the Obamacare-era tax fine for those who don’t buy health insurance would be removed, and the state and local taxes (SALT) deduction would be kept but capped at $10,000. Still, many smaller details of the negotiated plan remain unknown. Those include two issues raised in an ATPE letter to members of the Texas delegation: (1) a deduction for educators who use personal money to buy classroom supplies, and (2) a potential new tax for public pension investments, such as those in the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) trust fund.

The details of the bill are expected to be released later today. Follow @TeachtheVote on Twitter and watch for more updates as information becomes available. The tax bill must still receive a final vote of support in both chambers and receive the signature of the president before it becomes law, which Republican leadership hopes to have completed by Christmas.

 


Students in some school districts affected by Hurricane Harvey will see relief from certain standardized testing requirements. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced Thursday that Commissioner Mike Morath would waive some STAAR requirements for certain students affected by the massive storm. The commissioner has remained reluctant to provide relief in the form of STAAR testing schedules or accountability requirements, but he changed his tune slightly after Gov. Greg Abbott joined the chorus of those in favor of loosening accountability and testing requirements for Harvey-affected students and schools. Morath sent a letter to impacted school districts on Thursday explaining that fifth and eighth grade students who fail to pass the required state standardized tests twice can advance to the next grade level if district educators agree they are ready. Learn more about Morath’s decision to waive some testing requirements in this article from the Texas Tribune.

 


The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) and State Board of Education (SBOE) will host a free conference on teacher preparation and retention in January. The one-day event will feature roundtable and panel discussions on how Texas can better prepare its future teachers, support those in the classroom, and retain teachers tempted to the leave the field. It will also feature keynote speeches from Doug Lemov, who authored Teach Like a Champion, and Peter Dewitt, the author of Collaborative Leadership: Six Influences that Matter Most.

The conference, titled Learning Roundtable: Recruiting, Preparing and Retaining Top Teachers, will be held at the Austin Convention Center from 8:30 am until 4:30 pm on Thursday, January 25, and will offer up to 5.5 hours of continuing professional education (CPE) to participating educators. To view the full-day agenda, learn more about the event, or register to attend, visit the Texas Education Agency’s conference web page.

Related content: SBEC met last week for its final meeting of the year to discuss a broad agenda that included rulemaking resulting from bills passed during the 85th legislative session. The board also rejected revisiting a controversial and unnecessary pathway for superintendent candidates to seek certification without prior experience in a classroom, school, or managerial role. Read a recap of the meeting from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann who attended the meeting and testified on behalf of ATPE.

 


The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) board met yesterday and today, and ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter was in attendance. As reported in Exter’s blog post, the meeting included a discussion of the annual reports on the actuarial valuation of the TRS pension and healthcare funds.

 


 

TRS Annual Review

Each year the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) puts out an annual review of both the TRS Pension Fund and the TRS health care systems / trust funds which they present to the TRS Board members.

The TRS health care update this year is focused on an in-depth analysis of the changes from the 2017 Care and ActiveCare plans to those going into effect during the 2018 plan year, as a result of legislative action during 85th regular and special sessions. ATPE has reported a number of times on the TRS-Care and ActiveCare changes as they have unfolded. The changes to TRS are set to take effect Jan 1, 2018.

TRS has produced two helpful videos to help explain the new insurance program, one for participants who are Medicare eligible and another for participants who are non-Medicare.

You can click the link here to view the full TRS health care document produced by TRS.

The Board also received its annual review on the health of the TRS pension trust fund, including a preview of some major actions the staff intends to undertake in the coming year. The review of the pension fund was a much rosier conversation in the recent past than the health care discussion, but the board is planning to undergo an experience study in early 2018 that could present some new long term challenges if it results in lowering the assumed return of the fund.

The headline from the pension report is the TRS Trust Fund earned a return of 12.9% and ended the 2017 fiscal year at a market value of $147 billion compared to a market value of $134 billion for the fiscal year ending 8/31/16.

Results of the 8/31/17 valuation and comparisons to the 8/31/16 valuation are summarized below:

The strength of the previous year raises the fund’s 10-year return to over 8%, and the fund’s returns since inception (approximately thirty years) continue to exceed 8% as well.

Despite TRS’s exceeding the assumed rate of return during both of these time frames, there is a strong expectation that external consultants who will perform the experience study in early 2018 will come back with a strong recommendation to lower the assumed rate of return for the fund from 8% to somewhere in the neighborhood of 7.5%. The result of such a move, in isolation, is to dramatically increase the unfunded liability of the fund on paper, which also increases the number of years required to fully fund the pension. Under the state’s definition of actuarial soundness, the funding window must be less than 30 years to consider the fund actuarially sound for purposes of increasing retiree benefits, such as by providing retirees with a cost of living adjustment (COLA).

Should TRS ultimately lower the assumed rate of return, it will be incumbent upon the agency, active and retired teachers, and those groups that represent them to impress upon the legislature the absolute necessity of increasing TRS funding to make up for the assumed loss of investment income. The amount of new funding needed to offset a decrease in the assumed rate from 8% to 7.5% will be approximately $800 million per biennium.

You can click the link here to view the full TRS Pensions document produced by TRS.

ATPE weighs in as Congress hashes out differences on tax bill

Over the weekend, the U.S. Senate passed a $1.5 trillion tax bill designed by the upper chamber’s Republican leaders. The measure passed largely on a party line vote, with just one Republican joining Democrats in opposition, and it comes after the U.S. House passed its own version of a bill to reform the tax code last month. Now, the Senate and House must reconcile their respective differences and develop a bill that can pass both chambers before it heads to President Trump for his signature.

ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Canaday wrote members of the Texas Congressional delegation to weigh in on two provisions in the House and Senate bills that affect educators and their classrooms. The first pertains to the educator expense deduction, which currently allows educators to deduct up to $250 dollars from their tax bills when personal money is spent on classroom supplies and materials. The bill passed by the House eliminates the deduction altogether, while the Senate’s bill increases the deduction to up to $500.

ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Canaday

“While not the ideal approach to filling budget shortfalls or equalizing access to supplies and materials among students,” Canaday writes, “the deduction offers some form of reimbursement to educators who dip into their own pockets to purchase materials for students, classrooms, and schools that might otherwise go without.”

The second issue ATPE highlighted in its letter to Texas members of Congress involves the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS). The House tax bill would apply a new tax, the Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT), to public pension investments, including the TRS trust fund.

“Weakening the financial soundness of the TRS trust fund by subjecting it to new additional tax liability on the front end, in addition to the taxes already paid by individual retirees, is a cost that neither the State of Texas nor the teachers who spent their working years serving our state can afford,” wrote Canaday.

In both instances, ATPE asks members of the Texas delegation to encourage House and Senate leaders and other members of Congress currently negotiating a final bill to retain the Senate approach: doubling the Educator Expense Deduction (or, at a minimum, maintaining the current $250 deduction) and forgoing the inclusion of language applying the UBIT to public pension investments.

Read the full letter here, and check back for more as the U.S. Congress continues its work to reform elements of current U.S. tax law.

Guest Post: It’s Time to Fix the WEP

U.S. Representative Kevin Brady (R-Texas)

By Kevin Brady, Chairman
U.S. House Ways and Means Committee

The Windfall Elimination Provision or “WEP” is unfair. It’s unfair to public servants in Texas and across the nation, including places like California, Massachusetts and Ohio.  I’ve been working to repeal and replace the WEP for a decade. This is something we must do for our teachers, firefighters, police, and other public servants.

You probably know the history: When Social Security was created in 1935, state and local governments were excluded from participating due to Constitutional concerns.  Later, the law changed to allow state and local governments to offer Social Security to their employees.

As a result, many teachers, police, and firefighters still contribute to these longstanding retirement plans instead of Social Security since these substitute plans are often tailored to their chosen careers.  But many of these public servants also hold second (or third) jobs or have a second career where they’ve paid Social Security taxes. These folks rightfully expect to receive their earned Social Security benefits when they retire.  However, due to the WEP, their Social Security benefits end up being much lower than they were expecting.

Although the WEP may have been well intentioned in the start, today it’s simply unfair. Those affected by the WEP are subject to a different benefit formula than all other workers.  This arbitrary formula is based on a 1980’s one-size-fits-all Washington compromise and ignores a person’s actual work history.  The WEP also makes it harder to plan for retirement since the reduction doesn’t show up on a worker’s Social Security statement. When you are nearing retirement, surprises are never a good thing.

I think we can all agree that our teachers, police, and firefighters deserve better.

Working with my Democratic colleague from Massachusetts, Representative Richard Neal, and teacher, police, firefighter, and retiree groups, we’ve come together on a solution for addressing the WEP based on fairness, equal treatment and personal work histories.

Here’s how it would work.  The new proposal repeals the WEP as it exists today. Instead of only counting Social Security earnings as the current WEP does, we count all earnings of workers. This helps tailor benefits to your real-life work history.  This “proportional approach” calculates Social Security benefits using all earnings and then adjusts this amount based on the percentage of earnings that were subject to Social Security taxes.  This way, two workers with the same average earnings receive a Social Security benefit equal to the same percentage of their Social Security earnings.

Let’s look at an example for two teachers – one from Virginia who paid Social Security taxes on all of her earnings and another from Texas, who paid into a substitute retirement system like TRS but also tutored and paid Social Security taxes on these earnings.  Both teachers had average monthly earnings of $4,000.  The Virginia teacher had all of these earnings counted for Social Security purposes, while the Texas teacher only had $2,285 credited toward her Social Security benefits.

Under today’s law, the Virginia teacher would receive an initial monthly benefit of $1,776 if she claims at her full retirement age. That represents about 44 percent of her pre-retirement Social Security earnings.  On the other hand, because of the WEP the Texas teacher under today’s laws would only receive a monthly benefit of $800, which represents about 35 percent of pre-retirement Social Security earnings.

Under the new proposed “proportional approach”, the Virginia teacher would still receive a monthly benefit of $1,776.  But the Texas teacher would receive a monthly benefit of $1,015, which represents 44 percent of her pre-retirement Social Security earnings – or the same percentage as the Virginia teacher.

While the new proportional formula addresses the WEP for future retirees, we cannot leave current retirees behind. Our plan provides Social Security relief to current retirees affected by the WEP by providing special payments to these retirees. That’s only fair.

ATPE’s Monty Exter, Carl Garner, and Gary Godsey met with U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady in June 2017 to discuss fixing the WEP.

Over the years – with the help of groups like the Association of Texas Professional Educators, Texas Retired Teachers Association and Mass Retirees – we have taken important steps toward finally fixing the WEP.  With your help, we will finally ensure equal treatment for our teachers, firefighters, police, and other public servants.

This is a top priority for me, and we will not rest until we have a solution in law.

 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Nov. 17, 2017

For many of you it’s the start of a holiday vacation. Take a look at this week’s education news highlights as you plan your Thanksgiving week festivities:


ATPE member Paula Franklin testifies before House Public Education Committee, Nov. 14, 2017.

Earlier this week, the House Public Education Committee heard from educators working in school districts burdened by Hurricane Harvey. ATPE member Paula Franklin, who lives in Pearland and teaches in Galveston ISD, was one of the invited witnesses who shared concerns about testing and accountability requirements for schools and students affected by the history-making storm.

Read more about Paula’s compelling testimony in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins. Watch Paula’s testimony beginning at the 23:22 mark on the archived video file from the hearing available here.

 


The Texas Education Agency released final accountability ratings this week for Texas public school districts, campuses, and charter schools. As ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins writes in this blog post from Wednesday, these are the last “met standard/improvement required” ratings that school districts will receive before the state’s new “A-through-F” rating system is implemented, as mandated by the Texas legislature.

Did you know that members of the public can share input with TEA about the new A-through-F rating system? In a recent legislative update for members of the Texas Association of Community Schools, our friend Laura Yeager wrote about her experience serving on a parents’ stakeholder committee to advise TEA on the development of the new accountability system. She expressed concern that the agency hasn’t conducted open meetings or adequately solicited feedback from the public about how the adoption of an A-through-F rating system will affect schools, students, educators, and communities. We encourage anyone who would like to share their thoughts on A-through-F to send an email to TEA at feedbackAF@tea.texas.gov.


This week a number of key gubernatorial appointments were announced for education-related boards and committees.

First, Gov. Greg Abbott announced his picks to serve on the new Texas Commission on Public School Finance. The commission was created as a result of legislation passed during this summer’s special legislative session, after the House and Senate were unable to agree on a comprehensive fix to overhaul the state’s troubled school finance system. Abbott’s appointments to the high-profile commission include ATPE member Melissa Martin. Martin is a career and technology teacher in Galena Park ISD. She joins Abbott’s other appointees, attorney Scott Brister; former state representative Elvira Reyna; and Todd Williams, an education adviser to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings. Gov. Abbott has tapped Brister to chair the new commission. Other members of the commission include those selected by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick: Doug Killian, who serves as superintendent of Pflugerville ISD, and Senators Paul Bettencourt, Larry Taylor, and Royce West.

Also this week, Gov. Abbott revealed his appointments to fill three vacancies on the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) Board of Trustees. The new board members are Missouri City attorney Jarvis Hollingsworth; James “Dick” Nance, a retired coach who worked in Pasadena ISD; and Nanette Sissney, a school counselor in Whitesboro ISD. Hollingsworth will also chair the TRS board.

 


Have you noticed some updates to our Teach the Vote website this week? We are officially in candidate mode now, ready to highlight profiles not only for current officeholders, but also candidates running for office in 2018. In the next few days, we’ll be uploading 2017 voting records for current legislators, and we are also inviting candidates to participate in our online candidate survey. These resources are designed to help you learn where candidates stand on public education issues. We’re also excited to announce the addition of candidate profiles for the statewide offices of Texas Governor and Lieutenant Governor. Find candidates on our search page here, and check back frequently as we continue to add more information as we receive it. The candidate filing period for the 2018 elections is now open and will continue through Dec. 11, so you can expect to see some additional names added to our site and survey responses published as we receive them.

Learn more about how you can help shape the future of Texas in the pivotal 2018 elections by visiting our coalition partner website at TexasEducatorsVote.com.

 


 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Oct. 27, 2017

Here’s this week’s round-up of education news from the ATPE lobby team:


ATPE state officers met with Speaker Joe Straus in March 2017.

ATPE state officers with Speaker Joe Straus in March 2017

Texas political circles were shaken up this week by a pair of election announcements from top leaders in the Texas House of Representatives.

First came a surprise announcement on Wednesday that House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) will not seek reelection in 2018. The news of the departure of the popular house speaker was a disappointment to many in the public education community who appreciated his rational approach to leading the Texas House and willingness to prioritize school needs over divisive ideological battles.

ATPE state officers met with Rep. Byron Cook in Feb. 2017.

ATPE state officers with Rep. Byron Cook in Feb. 2017

Straus’s announcement was followed by a similar one from Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) on the same day. Cook, who has chaired the powerful House State Affairs Committee and the newly created House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness, similarly announced that he will step down at the end of his current term.

For more on Wednesday’s big announcements, check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

 


ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann was in Dallas yesterday for a stakeholder meeting regarding data collection for educator preparation in Texas. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) partnered with Educate Texas and other entities to solicit input and recommendations on data the agency collects to assess and improve educator preparation programs (EPPS) across Texas. A bill passed earlier this year during the 85th regular legislative session, Senate Bill (SB) 1839, added new requirements to data collection for EPPs. The work to solicit input will help guide the agency and the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) as they work to implement the new law.

As Kuhlmann reports, teachers, school districts, EPP representatives, and other engaged stakeholders convened in Dallas this week to consider and identify data that would would offer transparency for candidates considering future programs, provide diagnostic value to programs, and improve upon current data used to hold programs accountable. All agreed that a focus should be placed on presenting the data in a more easily accessible manner, such as a user-friendly online dashboard. Participants also agreed that the presentation of such data should include differentiated interfacing specific to consumers (future EPP candidates and the general public), school districts, and EPPs.

Yesterday’s meeting was the second of four scheduled stakeholder meetings. Two more will be held next week in Lubbock and Austin. The TEA, under the direction of the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC), will also convene a formal stakeholder committee to make recommendations on the matter and is reaching out to various standing committees for input. The agency expects to begin discussion on next steps for implementing recommendations at SBEC’s March 2018 meeting, once the initial stakeholder input has been collected. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates.

 


TRS logoToday, the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) Board of Trustees is meeting in Austin, where ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter is attending and has contributed the following report on the meeting:

The TRS Board of Directors convened today for a short meeting. After taking brief public testimony, they received an update from TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie, which focused primarily on administrative housekeeping with regard to the agendas of future meetings. Guthrie did drop one bomb during his update, informing the board that there has been some discussion in Washington of reclassifying the contributions to retirement systems like TRS such that they would no longer be tax-deferred. Such a move would be a monumental policy shift dramatically impacting both educators and the pension fund itself.

After Guthrie’s comments, the board received its first update on the TRS Enterprise Application Modernization or (TEAM) program since the go live date on which we’ve previously reported. The transition has not been without the “hiccups” that accompany any such major technology transition, but the new system is stable and operational and the transition has been mostly smooth.

Next, the board worked its way through a series of administrative items before taking up proposed rules on 403(b) vendor rates. There has been significant back and forth between the board and a large segment of the 403(b) vendor community with regard to these rule changes. Many vendors acknowledge that the rules have been significantly improved, from their perspective, throughout the process. That said, most vendors still do not favor the new rules. Despite the board’s adoption of the rules, many expect this issue to remain a topic of discussion for the 86th legislature in 2019.

Finally, the board received its first overview presentation on the TRS experience study the board will undertake early next year. The experience study will help the board set many of the assumptions that are used to determine the actuarial health of the pension fund. The actuarial picture of a fund can help lawmakers makers determine contribution rates and is often used by anti-pension advocates to push for abandonment of defined-benefit pension plans based on their unfunded liabilities. Additionally, in the case of TRS, the actuarial soundness as defined by a funding horizon of less than 31 years is what allows TRS to give a COLA to retirees.

The last TRS board meeting of 2017 will be in December, and the first board meeting of 2018 will be a board retreat scheduled to commence on Valentine’s Day, February 14th.

 


Interim charges have now been released for both House and Senate committees to study in preparation for the 2019 legislative session. The charges issued by House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick direct standing committees in the House and Senate, respectively, to convene hearings and gather feedback from stakeholders on hot topics expected to be debated by the 86th legislature.

Rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Harvey are among the numerous charges for multiple committees, but there are also several directives that focus specifically on public education. The Senate Education Committee, for instance, will study such issues as teacher compensation, virtual learning, student discipline, dual credit, and school choice. The House Public Education  Committee is tasked with studying teacher retention, educating students with disabilities, charter school laws, and ways to assess student performance other than using standardized test scores. Other committees will examine public pension systems and the TRS healthcare programs for educators.

Read more about the House interim charges here and Senate interim charges here. ATPE’s lobbyists will be covering all of the education-related interim hearings and providing updates here on our Teach the Vote blog and on Twitter.

 


DNA_4w2U8AARK-pOne week of early voting remains for the Nov. 7 constitutional amendment election. As part of our work with the Texas Educators Vote coalition to create a culture of voting in the education community, ATPE urges our members and all other registered voters to participate in this and all elections. Early voting runs through Friday, Nov. 3. The Texas Secretary of State also declared today, Oct. 27, as #StudentVotingDay, encouraging eligible high school students who registered to vote to get out and cast their ballots today. Learn more about what’s on the Nov. 7 ballot and how to be an engaged voter in this ATPE Blog post.

 


 

Federal Update: Efforts to protect educators’ Social Security benefits

An Update from David Pore, ATPE’s Washington, DC-based lobbyist

David Pore

David Pore

For many years, your ATPE Governmental Relations team has worked to fix two provisions in federal law that unfairly reduce the Social Security benefits of some retired educators and other public employees. The Government Pension Offset (GPO) reduces the spousal benefits of some educators based on their eligibility for a government pension, and the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) reduces the individual benefits of public retirees who have worked in jobs covered by Social Security in addition to their non-covered teaching careers. The WEP hits Texas educators particularly hard because the vast majority of our school districts in Texas do not pay into the Social Security system.

Every Congress, legislation is introduced to fully repeal both the WEP and the GPO. So, what’s the problem you ask? Why won’t the Congress repeal these unfair offsets and bring much-needed relief to retired public educators, cops, and firefighters living on fixed incomes? In short, it’s about the money, the politics, and the policy. Full repeal of the GPO and WEP would cost the Social Security trust fund tens of billions of dollars and create new inequities in the benefits formula, which in turn would create new winners and losers.

While ATPE has supported federal legislation to fully repeal these offsets, we have done so with the knowledge that passage of a full repeal bill is extremely unlikely in the current fiscal and political climate in DC. Therefore, consistent with our ATPE values, we have been working on bipartisan legislation that will take a huge first step in the right direction by repealing the arbitrary WEP and replacing it with a much fairer formula that will base your Social Security benefits on your service and contributions, just like everyone else. In the last Congress, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX)  and Rep.  Neal (D-MA) introduced HR711, the Equal Treatment for Public Servants Act.  Working through a coalition of other associations, including the Texas Retired Teachers Association (TRTA), ATPE had significant input on this important bipartisan legislation that would have also provided a modest annual rebate check to current retirees who have had their benefits reduced by the WEP. We were able to get 29 of Texas’s 36 U.S. House members to cosponsor HR711, and in July of last year, it was scheduled for consideration by the House Ways and Means Committee, which Congressman Brady chairs.  Unfortunately, the bill stalled when one organization in the coalition demanded changes that would have upset the careful funding balance necessary to repeal the WEP going forward and provide current retirees some relief as well.

ATPE's Monty Exter, Carl Garner, and Gary Godsey meet with U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady in June 2017.

ATPE’s Monty Exter, Carl Garner, and Gary Godsey meet with U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady in June 2017.

This year, we have been working with Chairman Brady, his committee staff, and the coalition to reach a consensus that will allow the bill to be reintroduced in the near future and hopefully attached to larger package of “must-pass” legislation. ATPE’s lobbyists have been in frequent contact with the Chairman and his committee staff and have been assured as recently as yesterday that reintroduction and passage of this bill is Chairman Brady’s top Social Security priority as Ways and Means Chair and will happen during this Congress. Meanwhile, the Congress continues to grapple with enormously challenging reform of our healthcare and tax systems, which has delayed consideration of other federal legislation.

What can you do? Continue to stay active and informed on the policy issues that affect your profession as well as the retirement benefits you have earned. When the bill is reintroduced, we will need ATPE members to mobilize and contact your Members of Congress and urge co-sponsorship and support to get this legislation to the President’s desk for signature. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for more updates on this important topic.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Sept. 22, 2017

Here’s a look at the week’s education news stories from the ATPE lobby team:

 


The board of trustees for the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) met this week in Austin. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter attended the meetings and provided this report for our blog, summarizing the board’s discussions about data system upgrades and possible future actions pertaining to retire/rehire policies for educators and the assumed rate of return associated with the pension fund.

 


TEA_assessmentsThe Texas Education Agency (TEA) has been busy rolling out new STAAR testing resources for educators and parents. Its TexasAssessment.com website offers tools and data for parents, teachers, and administrators to help understand and analyze information related to the state’s standardized testing system. This week, TEA made available to educators the ability to view sample reports that parents can access for their children. The goal is to help teachers provide guidance to their students’ parents who may have questions about the STAAR reports. For more information on the new resources, check out this week’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.

 


This weekend, ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins is attending the Texas Tribune’s annual TribFest. Learn more about the education-related panel discussions that are taking place at the festival in this blog post from Mark. ATPE’s Governmental Relations staff members are also out on the road this weekend attending ATPE meetings in Regions 12 and 14, with many more scheduled in the next few weeks. Learn more about these events in today’s blog post from ATPE Political Involvement Coordinator Edwin Ortiz.

 


 

Summary of third-quarter TRS board meeting

TRS logoThe Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas held its quarterly board meeting this week in Austin on Thursday, Sept. 21, and Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. You can watch video of the board meeting here, as well as review the board agenda and board book.

The TRS board received its final update on the TEAM project prior to the upcoming go live date. As we have reported previously on our blog, TEAM is the agency’s ongoing project to update its computer infrastructure and data systems. TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie reported that everything continues to be a go for the transition to the new system, which is scheduled to go live on Oct. 2. At the next meeting, the board will receive a report on the transition from the legacy system to the new system and the transition from working on phase one of the TEAM project to working on phase two.

In a subsequent agenda item, Guthrie laid out several of his policy goals for the upcoming year. Included in those Guthrie would like to look into significantly streamlining the retire/rehire rules for educators. There are always pros and cons to any changes made to the retire/rehire rules, and advocacy groups including ATPE will stay closely involved during the process to ensure that the rules produce the best results possible for individual educators while also ensuring the overall health of the retirement fund. Additionally, TRS is set to undertake the process of completing an updated experience study, a process utilizing a third-party vendor to analyze the assumptions TRS uses to determine its actuarial numbers. TRS staff expects to complete the study by February and present findings to the TRS board for discussion at the February board retreat.

ThinkstockPhotos-465016790_moneyConducting an experience study and reconsidering the TRS assumptions, including the assumed rate of return, is a significant action for the TRS board and agency. The assumptions combined with the actual assets on hand are what TRS uses to determine the funding window and overall actuarial soundness of the pension fund. Lowering the assumed rate of return without increasing the contribution rate will significantly increase the funding window, or number of years required to fully cover pension liabilities. Under law the fund cannot be considered actuarially sound if the window is greater than 30 years. Currently the fund is just over the 30 year mark but is trending in the right direction. Lowering the assumed rate of return even slightly will add years, as many as five to 10, to the funding window. TRS’s current assumed rate of return is 8 percent. Despite the fact that TRS has a one-year rate of return at 12.9 percent, a five-year rate of return at 8.9 percent, and a 26-year rate of return at 8.7 percent, there is significant pressure, including political and peer pressure, to lower the investment return assumption. ERS recently underwent a similar process that resulted in that fund’s rate of return being lowered from 8 percent down to 7.5 percent.

Any degradation of TRS’s actuarial soundness will undoubtedly result in new calls from some advocates and state lawmakers who oppose government-funded pensions for TRS to be converted from a defined-benefit pension system into a defined-contribution 401(k)-style plan.

In addition to the meeting of the full TRS board, various sub-committees also met this week. Of particular note, the TRS policy committee made changes to a number of TRS rules, many in response to legislative changes from the 85th legislative session that just went into effect on Sept. 1, 2017. You can review the list of rules affected on the Policy Committee Agenda or take a closer look at the rules in the Policy Committee Book.

Other committees that met this week included the following with links to their materials:

  • TRS Investment Management Committee – Agenda and Book;
  • TRS Risk Management Committee – Agenda and Book;
  • TRS Compensation Committee – Agenda and Book; and
  • TRS Audit Committee – Agenda and Book

The next TRS board meeting will be a one-day meeting on October 27, 2017. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates.