Earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick released a letter sent to the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) urging the board not to increase TRS-Care premiums for retired educators. Quickly following Patrick’s lead, state Sen. Joan Huffman (R–Houston) released a letter of her own also urging TRS to not increase premiums. Huffman chairs the Senate committee charged with overseeing TRS.
With no TRS board meeting until late September and TRS releasing no additional information regarding potential premium increases, these letters came as a bit of a surprise to both education advocates and to TRS. They were also particularly shocking considering the fact that neither the lieutenant governor nor the Senate over which he presides are known for generosity in spending state dollars on education or educators.
Perhaps, however, when put into the context of an election season in which both retired and active educators are still miffed at the way TRS-Care reform was handled last session, the letters, which otherwise seem out of character, make more sense. For example, Lt. Gov. Patrick’s letter was addressed to the chairperson of the TRS board, but was simultaneously delivered to the press. Chairman Jarvis Hollingsworth and the rest of the TRS board are gubernatorial appointees, not an elected body. They serve at the pleasure of Gov. Greg Abbott. TRS, a state agency, operates under the direction and oversight of the legislature. Working directly with TRS, perhaps in coordination with the governor’s office, especially on an issue that isn’t yet public, would have been every bit as effective as making a public announcement of this type. Additionally, aside from the direct request not to raise premiums, the rest of Patrick’s letter sounds more like a campaign stump speech aimed at voters — claiming accomplishments and making future promises — than it does a typical letter expressing direction to a state agency.
Let’s look at some of those “accomplishments” and promises.
Patrick states, “In the last 4 years the Texas Senate has taken the lead in adding over a billion dollars to TRS Care funding including over $200 million in the Special Session last year.”
First, let’s address the funding from the special session. The special session occurred less than three months after the regular session ended, and the state’s economic picture was virtually unchanged. So what did change that allowed Patrick and the Senate to “find” $200 million dollars that they were unwilling to spend less than three months prior? The passage of the TRS-Care reform bill was one of the last things to happen during the regular session. As soon as the bill passed, news of the dramatic increases in retiree premiums hit like a ton of bricks. Hundreds — if not thousands — of retired educators began to call their elected officials, understandably irate. With a special session on things like the failed bathroom bill already on the horizon, additional money to somewhat lessen the blow to angry retirees was added to the call in an attempt to head off an all-out revolt.
Next, let’s put into perspective the amount spent over the last four years and address the way it was spent. A billion dollars sounds like a lot of money; but over four years it represents only about one quarter of 1% of the Texas budget. Additionally, all but $165 million of that billion was put into the budget as one-time supplemental funding. That is significant because the Senate all but refused to add money to the budget as an increase to the funding formulas instead, which is built into the base budget on an ongoing basis and significantly reduces the need to fight for that funding in future sessions. Not only did the Senate resist increasing the formulas beyond the $165 million, it’s in fact unlikely that any of the money would have been put into the funding formula had the House, under the leadership of Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), not fought for the formula increase.
If the dollars put into TRS in the 2015 session had been budgeted as formula instead of supplemental funding, the shortfall during the 2017 session would have only been about $300 million, instead of a billion. It would have been much easier for advocates to rally legislators to find $300 million dollars as opposed to a billion, and retirees could have likely avoided dramatic premium increases. Finally, had Patrick and the Senate put the money spent in 2015 and 2017 into the formulas, there would likely be little to no shortfall going into 2019.
Unfortunately, since the money spent over the last two sessions was not delivered through increased funding formulas, we do have a significant shortfall in TRS-Care funding going into 2019. However, the lieutenant governor goes on to state that he is “confident that the Senate will support additional funding for TRS Care” and that he “believe[s] additional funding should be the responsibility of the Legislature and not fall on the shoulders of our retired teachers.” Considering how hard advocates and retirees had to fight for funding last session, it’s good — though surprising — to hear that the lieutenant governor is confident that full state funding will be available this session. Hopefully that’s not the type of campaign promise that seems to evaporate as soon as the election is over.
Without a doubt, ATPE and thousands of retired educators would prefer TRS-Care premiums either decrease or remain steady, as opposed to increase. Whether or not that preference becomes reality will be entirely up to the next legislature. Let’s hope that retired and active educators remember how much impact elected officials have on them and their students when they cast a ballot in November and that elected officials remember how impactful active and retired educators are during the next session, after those ballots have been cast.