Author Archives: Monty Exter

Senate State Affairs Committee discusses future of TRS pension fund

The Senate State Affairs Committee met in Austin this week to discuss interim charges about the health of various state and municipal pension systems, including the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas. The committee heard invited testimony from the staff and members of the Texas Pension Review Board (PRB), as well as the heads of several pension systems, including TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie.

Some of the more general discussion included senators, including Sen. Charles Schwertner in particular, making the case that defined benefit pension systems are somehow inherently flawed and should be scrapped and replaced with 401(k)-style defined contribution systems. This now tired pitch, whose real aim is to line the pockets of private money managers, has been soundly refuted on many fronts, particularly as it applies to TRS. First 401(k)s have proven to be not so wonderful retirement vehicles. For the average American population which relies on them for the bulk of their retirement planning, these investment vehicles have proven to be a tool that generally leads to a woefully underfunded retirement account that is highly sensitive to market volatility and has left many in bad positions with regard to their retirement security. Second, 401(k)s were never meant to stand alone. They were really meant to be a supplement to a more traditional pension system, but even as that has gone by the wayside for many, they are still intended to be on top of Social Security benefits. However, most Texas educators will not receive full Social Security benefits because neither the educator nor the state is paying into Social Security on their behalf. This leads to the final falsehood promulgated by retirement privatizers, that defined benefit pension plans simply cost too much. The truth is Texas has been getting by on the cheap for decades.

Retirement experts will tell you that you should be putting away around 25 percent of your pre-retirement income for use in retirement. Half of that amount, 12.5 percent, is normally covered by contributions to Social Security. Any reasonably good private employer will put up a match of 4 percent, or better, toward an employee’s individual retirement account, in addition to paying the required 6.25 percent employer’s share of Social Security. This means that these private employers are on the hook for a little more than a 10 percent toward their employee’s retirement. Likewise, their employees must also put the required 6.25 percent into Social Security and typically an additional 4 percent or more into their own retirement accounts to access the employer’s match. For years the state of Texas only contributed 6 percent, the constitutional minimum, into the TRS pension system. Thanks in large part to the work of ATPE the state bumped that contribution up to 6.8 percent a few sessions ago. However, at only 0.55 percent above what the state would otherwise have to pay into Social Security, Texas still contributes less than half of what the next lowest state not paying into Social Security pays towards it educators’ retirements. Most Texas teachers are themselves contributing 7.7 percent, or just 1.45 percent above what they would otherwise be paying toward Social Security, into their pension system. When you add in the 1.5 percent districts are contributing into the TRS pension plan, the total contribution comes to 16 percent. At 16 percent, contributions into TRS are substantially less than what even average employers and employees are contributing toward retirement, and despite being many educators only source of retirement income, that is only 64 percent of what experts recommend putting away. So far from being “too expensive” as some lawmakers insist, the TRS pension system has been an exceedingly good deal for the state of Texas.

This discussion is of particular importance at this moment because while TRS has been reasonably healthy for a long time and has been on track to be actuarially sound (very healthy) within the next five years, those statistics have been based on TRS’s current assumed rate of return of 8 percent. Based on the advice of the external actuarial firm with which TRS contracts, the TRS board is considering lowering that assumed rate of return. In order to maintain the positive trajectory of the fund, legislators will need to increase the contribution rate going into the fund. Per the discussion above, these increased contributions are long overdue, and had lawmakers increased them previously, the fund would be in a much better place today. Additionally, many retirees wouldn’t have gone more than a decade without a cost of living adjustment. If TRS lowers its assumed rate of return, however, the decision to increase contributions will no longer be a luxury; it will be an imperative. ATPE is advocating for this process to take place gradually over a number of years so that the increased contributions, corresponding to a gradually decreased assumed rate of return on investments, won’t be a shock the system for either the state or educators who will both share the burden of increased contributions.

Whether a gradual approach is taken or a more “one and done” approach is used, as is being advocated by TRS, the important thing is that educators stay fully engaged with their legislators, and in choosing their legislators this election year, so that the health of the pension fund is secured.

Making better use of the state’s rainy day fund when it’s not raining

The Senate Finance Committee met today to take up a number of Senate interim charges. Among them, the committee took up the charge to examine options to increase investment earnings of the Economic Stabilization Fund in a manner that minimizes overall risk to the fund balance and to evaluate how the Economic Stabilization Fund constitutional limit is calculated; considering alternative methods to calculate the limit, and alternative uses for funds above the limit.

the Texas Economic Stabilization Fund, often referred to as the state’s rainy day fund, is a mechanism that diverts a part of the severance taxes the state collects on oil and gas production and sets those monies aside to fill budget shortfalls resulting from temporary economic downturns. The fund, which has been used many times since its inception, has in recent years grown to approximately $11 billion, larger than at anytime in its history.

During the last session lawmakers facing stiff budget constraints began to discuss how they could better utilize the rainy day fund, other than continuing to stuff cash into the state’s proverbial mattress. One idea floated by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar was to take a portion of the fund and invest it as an endowment such that the investment returns could be used to help pay for state priorities, like shoring up the state’s pension funds. Legislators were not comfortable acting on that idea without more time to vet it.

In today’s hearing Hegar reintroduced the idea of investing the whole of the rainy day fund in very liquid assets that would allow for a return that roughly matches the inflation rate and investing a portion of the fund, in excess of what legislators think they might need quick access to, in less liquid assets that would generate a higher return. The Comptroller’s office predicts that an investment of $3 billion, with additional biennial investments over a certain threshold, would within 10 years accumulate to a fund that generates $1 billion a year in usable revenue. In 20 years, that projection jumps to more than $2 billion a year. The idea was received fairly favorably.

One of the things the state has used the rainy day fund for in recent years is to justify credit rating firms’ assignment of a AAA (the highest) credit rating to the state. Having a AAA rating allows the state and school districts through the Permanent School Fund (PSF) bond guarantee program to pay the lowest possible rate on bond debt. It was pointed out in the hearing however, that the rainy day fund is only one factor those firms look at when assigning a score. Another, more heavily weighed factor is the health/unfunded liabilities of a state’s pension funds. Both TRS and ERS need improvement to ensure the state is able to keep its current rating. A downgraded rating could cost the state billions in additional interest over the life of the state’s and school dostricts’ many bonds.

Primary Election Statement from Texas Educators Vote

Texas Educators Vote Applauds Increased Voter Turnout in March 2018 Texas Primary Election

by: Laura Yeager

March 7, 2018

AUSTIN, TEXAS—Texas Educators Vote congratulates educators across the state for turning out in record numbers to vote in yesterday’s primary election. Current numbers show an increase of almost 700,000 voters over 2014 midterm primary election numbers. That accounts for a 35 percent increase in civic engagement. School districts across the state played an important part in the increase by working to develop a culture of voting and model civic engagement for students.

Educators are role models for students, teach about citizenship as required by the SBOE-written curriculum standards, and are legally required to register eligible students to vote. By watching educators practice what they teach, the next generation of Texas voters will be poised to become engaged citizens and strengthen democracy.

Laura Yeager, Director of the Texas Educators Vote project, said, “It is heartwarming to see the excitement and engagement of teachers, principals, superintendents, trustees, parents, and all citizens across the state exercising their role in our democracy and modeling civic engagement for our children.”

Educators have been undeterred by continuous and ongoing efforts by powerful allied groups trying to intimidate them from turning out to vote.

“We admire the resilience of Texas educators and their steadfast devotion to their responsibilities to students, communities, and the State of Texas by staying true to their rights and responsibilities as members of a participatory democracy,” added Yeager.

A culture of voting depends on citizens participating in each and every election. Texas Educators Vote encourages educators and all Texans to remain engaged and to vote in the May run-off elections and the November General Election.

# # #

Texas Educators Vote can be contacted at (512) 423-7584 or info@texaseducatorsvote.com

Wrapping the Texas Primary Election

While dissecting yesterday’s election has only just begun, here are two immediate takeaways from last night.

First, turnout was up, and at least some — if not a lot — of that increased turnout was due to more educators embracing a culture of voting. Roughly 689,000 more Texans cast votes as compared to the last non-presidential primary in 2014. Approximately 200,000 more people cast a ballot in the Republican primary and just shy of 500,000 more people cast a ballot in the Democratic primary. Efforts by school districts, groups like Texas Educators Vote and Texans for Public Education, and many, many individual teachers created an energy which has unquestionably begun to translate into increased voter participation among the educator population. Educators should be proud of taking this first step, and should strive to continue to have even better engagement in future elections, including the upcoming runoff elections in many districts and the general election this fall.

The second takeaway: It was a good night to be an incumbent. With rare exceptions and regardless of partisanship or ideology, if you were an officeholder going into yesterday’s primary, you were still your party’s nominee coming out of the primary. Of the 59 contested races for a Texas House, Senate, State Board of Education, or statewide elected position where an incumbent was running against one or more challengers, the incumbent won in 50. That total increases to 51 if you count former longtime House member Trey Martinez Fisher, who won a primary against the current incumbent, as an incumbent. Two more incumbents could still prevail in the runoff election in May.

How did ATPE do?

Of the candidates the ATPE PAC invested in 72 percent won outright and another 8 percent are headed into runoffs as the top vote getters. Only 20 percent of the candidates ATPE PAC supported, including four challengers: Scott Milder, Jim Largent, Clint Bedsole, and James Wilson, did not prevail, despite running valiant races in defense of public education. Those are phenomenal win loss numbers for any PAC.

After a brief rest, ATPE and our pro-education allies will turn our attention the May 22 primary runoffs. But for today, congratulations to the winning candidates, condolences to those who did not prevail, good luck to those moving on to round two, and the most heartfelt of thanks to all of those Texans, including thousands upon thousands of active and retired educators, who took on their civic duty as voters!

For a complete list of results visit the Texas Secretary of State’s website.

Republican primary results can be found at this page.

Democratic primary results can be found at this page.

Why March 6 Matters: Healthcare

Early voting is underway NOW for the March 6 Texas primary elections, so we’re taking a look at some of the reasons why it’s so important that educators vote in this election! Today, we’re taking a closer look at healthcare for active and retired educators.


In our first post of this series we examined teacher pay, which lags behind the national average. While paychecks are a major concern, Texas also spends less than any other state on employee benefits, funding them only at about $967 per pupil, which includes the cost of health insurance. In fact, Texas spends less than our neighboring states Oklahoma and New Mexico, which are both under the national average as well but are spending $1,505 and $1,905 per pupil respectively, despite having significantly less wealth per capita than Texas (U.S. Census Bureau, Public Education Finances: 2014, G14-ASPEF, released May 2016).

The ever-increasing amount of money being taken out of educators’ paychecks for healthcare is primarily due to the fact that state funding and state-mandated district funding for health insurance, including the TRS-ActiveCare plan used by many districts for their employees, has remained unchanged since the program first began some 17 years ago.

When the Legislature first decided to subsidize teacher health insurance premiums back in 2001, the $225 contribution for each employee (made up of $75 from the state and $150 from the school district) was in line with what private employers were paying toward healthcare for their employees. Since that time, health insurance inflation generally has been between eight and ten percent per year, and educator premiums have increased more than 250 percent. Also during that time frame, many private employers have increased what they pay toward employee health insurance premiums, but Texas’s funding of the healthcare program for public school employees has fallen way behind.

Legislative inaction has now led to an insurance program for school district employees that is more burdensome than beneficial, and for many educators, it amounts to a pay cut year after year. Back In November 2014, the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) released its TRS-Care Sustainability and TRS-ActiveCare Affordability Study that was commissioned by the 83rd legislature. It outlined numerous options for lawmakers to consider in dealing with the looming healthcare crisis for educators. Despite those recommendations, the legislature has failed to address exploding healthcare costs for active employees.

One reason the legislature has neglected to address healthcare costs for active employees, including during the most recent 2017 legislative sessions, is the sad fact that the state’s health insurance program for retired educators, TRS-Care, is in even worse shape. After years of inadequately funding retirees’ health insurance, the legislature has now faced back-to-back sessions in which the program was at risk of running out of money and collapsing in on itself —a prospect that would leave hundreds of thousands of retired educators with no health insurance, dramatically limiting their access to healthcare when they most need it.

Back in 2015, the 84th Texas legislature opted not to address the funding formulas that determine how our state pays for TRS-Care. Instead, they made a $700 million supplemental appropriation to keep TRS-Care afloat for one more budget cycle.

By the time the 85th legislature arrived in Austin in January 2017, the TRS-Care shortfall had ballooned to $1.2 billion. Again, lawmakers were unwilling to address the underlying funding formulas, and they similarly declined to make even a one-time appropriation to cover the full cost. Instead, the Senate under the guidance of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sen. Joan Huffman, who chaired the Senate Committee on State Affairs that oversees TRS, pushed forward a plan that cut the cost of TRS-Care to the state by shifting more costs to retirees.

It’s worth nothing that retired educators have not seen a cost of living adjustment to increase their pensions for over a decade, during which time they’ve also had to endure dramatic reductions in their healthcare benefits as a result of restructuring of the health insurance plan. That combination of dwindling purchasing power due to the effects of inflation on stagnant pension payments and crushing new healthcare costs caused such an outcry from retired educators that by the time legislators came back to Austin in the summer of 2017 for a special session, they felt compelled to put a modest amount of one-time extra dollars into the system to temporarily soften the blow of the impending changes to TRS-Care. However, those additional one-time funds were only a short-term band-aid on a much larger problem that remains.

Even with the draconian measures taken by the 85th legislature, resulting in significant rate hikes for many plan participants, TRS-Care is projected still to have a funding shortfall that will have to be addressed by the 86th legislature. In other words, lawmakers must act in 2019 if TRS-Care is to continue to exist for retired educators

Finding real solutions to the crisis of access to affordable healthcare for the state’s active and retired educators is a complex and expensive task. It cannot and will not be achieved by legislators whose singular priority is creating the appearance of cutting state spending without solving the problems faced by our state’s more than 1 million active and retired school employees. The elections that will determine who occupies those critical legislative seats and will have the power to decide the future of healthcare funding for educators are happening right now. Active and retired public school employees who have dedicated their lives to serving and educating our 5.4 million young Texans have the power to shape the outcome of this battle simply by voting in the 2018 primaries.


Go to the CANDIDATES section of our Teach the Vote website to find out where officeholders and candidates in your area stand on school finance and other public education issues. Because voting districts in Texas are politically gerrymandered, most elections are decided in the party primary instead of the November general election. That’s why it is so important to vote in the primary election. Registered voters can cast their ballot in either the Republican or Democratic primary, regardless of how you voted last time.

Remind your colleagues also about the importance of voting in the primary and making informed choices at the polls. Keep in mind that it is illegal to use school district resources to communicate information that supports or opposes specific candidates or ballot measures, but there is no prohibition on sharing nonpartisan resources and general “get out of the vote” reminders about the election.

Early voting in the 2018 primaries runs Tuesday, Feb. 20, through Friday, March 2. Election day is March 6, but there’s no reason to wait. Get out there and use your educator voice by casting your vote TODAY!

Answering your questions on 2018 Texas primary ballot propositions

Texas primary elections are slated for March 6, 2018. In addition to voting for candidates, primary voters will weigh in on a number of ballot propositions. As we shared with you recently on our Teach the Vote blog, these primary ballot propositions are not the same as constitutional referenda or local propositions. The primary ballot measures laid out by each party do not have any force of law, but are instead used by the Republican and Democratic parties to help develop each party’s state platform, or the list of things the party and its members generally believe in and are working toward making into law.

Each of these two parties has more than ten ballot propositions they are putting up for voters to consider in 2018, and some of the propositions have implications for public education. Several ATPE members have asked us to provide additional background on the propositions and guidance on where voters may find additional information about what they mean.

Education-related issues included in Republican party ballot propositions:

If you are voting in the Republican primary, your first non-binding proposition on the ballot asks whether “Texas should replace the property tax system with an appropriate consumption tax equivalent.” One blog reader asked ATPE for a layman’s explanation of the proposition. According to additional information on the Texas Republican Party’s website, Proposition #1 relates to an existing plank in the state party’s 2016 platform that called for replacing the property tax system with another form of taxation, but not an income tax. The party’s delegates in 2016 preferred a tax that would be based on how much an individual or business consumes. The most commonly known form of consumption tax is sales tax. Under current law, the bulk of funding for Texas public education is generated locally through property taxes. Accordingly, we believe this proposition from the Texas Republican Party contemplates funding Texas public schools with higher sales taxes or some other form of more variable consumption tax in lieu of property taxes.

What would be required to eliminate the property tax by increasing the sales tax? In 2016, sales taxes generated $36 billion in state and local revenue, while property taxes generated more than $56 billion. According to the non-profit Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, the state sales tax would have to be raised from 6.25 to 23 percent, using the current tax base, to make up for revenue lost from eliminating the property tax. If you expanded the sales tax base by taxing things like groceries, gas, water, medicine, and electric bills, as well as adding sales tax for services like those provided by doctors, lawyers, and architects, Texas would still have to raise the state sales tax to at least 15 percent in order for sales taxes to replace the current revenue from property taxes. When you add on the 2 percent local sales tax, you would end up with a total sales tax range of 17 to 25 percent.

Republican primary voters will also see a proposition on their ballot that pertains to paying for private or home schools. The Texas Republican Party’s Proposition #5 asks whether or not “Texas families should be empowered to choose from public, private, charter, or homeschool options for their children’s education, using tax credits or exemptions without government constraints or intrusion.” Some members have asked ATPE what this proposition means. Under current law, Texas families can already “choose from public, private, charter, or homeschool options for their children’s education.” Current laws at the state and federal level also enforce very little regulation on private schools, while homeschools exist with almost no government regulation. On the other hand, traditional public schools and public charter schools are considerably more regulated and are both subject to the state accountability system while being made available to students at no direct cost to their parents. Since Texas families already have school choice under the law, this ballot proposition seemingly seeks input on whether or not the state should create some new form of voucher system that would fund private and or homeschool settings without attaching any accountability (“government constraints or intrusion”) to those public funds.

Another GOP ballot measure that mentions public schools this year is Proposition #6, which reads, “Texas should protect the privacy and safety of women and children in spaces such as bathrooms, locker rooms, and showers in all Texas schools and government buildings.” As with the first ballot measure discussed above, you have to compare this language to current law in order to unpack what the measure is actually proposing.

Texas already has multiple laws that protect women and children (and men for that matter) from harassment, assault, rape, murder, child abuse, and other specific crimes, whether those crimes occur in a bathroom, locker room, shower, or anywhere else. According to the Texas Republican Party’s voter guide explaining its 2018 ballot, this particular proposition is aimed at protecting against “some schools” that the party’s leaders say have “tried to allow boys to have access to girls’ private areas, including school showers and restrooms.” This proposition revisits the subject matter of some controversial bills that were filed during the 2017 legislative sessions but did not pass regarding school district policies on bathroom usage by transgender children. Texas does not have a state law prohibiting transgender children from entering a restroom matching the gender with which they identify. Currently, school districts or individual campuses set policies locally to determine how to address individual student situations and requests from families. This ballot proposition appears to contemplate whether or not there should be a single state law that supersedes any local policies.

A final GOP ballot measure that would impact public schools and other local entities has to do with property tax revenue. Proposition #10 reads, “To slow the growth of property taxes, yearly revenue increases should be capped at 4%, with increases in excess of 4% requiring voter approval.” To address questions about what this proposition means, it’s helpful to consider how local school funding is currently generated and what types of tax increases require voter approval under existing law.

About two-thirds of the money used to pay for local schools is derived from local property tax collections. As a result, any significant change to the property tax system is likely to affect school funding. Unlike most other local entities, the vast majority of schools are already subject to rollback elections if school district trustees choose to raise their local tax rate above current levels. This 2018 Republican party ballot proposition, however, speaks to revenue, which is a combination of tax rates and property values. Currently, if a school district’s revenue increases due to a rise in property values, and not because of an increase in the property tax rate, the district does not have to conduct a rollback election. Under a four percent revenue cap that is being proposed by the Texas Republican Party leadership, school districts would have to conduct a rollback election every time their revenue from increased property values exceeds four percent. It’s worth noting that rollback elections are themselves expensive to conduct and are funded out of money that would otherwise be spent by the school district educating students. This proposition contemplates that if voters do not approve of the increase in revenue, the district would likely have to decrease its property tax rate in order to bring down its total revenue increase to four percent or less.

As a side note, the Texas legislature has used increases in local property values to offset its own decreases in per-pupil state funding for more than a decade. This is why the ratio of state to local public education spending has gone from roughly 50/50 about ten years ago to 38/62 (or less) by 2019.

Education-related issues included in Democratic party ballot propositions:

If you are voting in the Democratic primary this year, your ballot will include Proposition #1 asking, “Should everyone in Texas have the right to quality public education from pre-k to 12th grade, and affordable college and career training without the burden of crushing student loan debt?” According to the Texas Democratic Party, the ballot measure is one of a set of propositions dubbed by party leaders as “The Texas Bill of Rights; 12 Big, Bold Ideas to Save Texas.”

Focusing on the pre-K through 12th grade portion of the language in this first proposition, it is unclear by the ballot language itself exactly what specific policies the Democratic party is attaching to ensuring each Texan’s “right to a quality public education.” There are dozens, if not hundreds, of potential initiatives that could fall under ensuring a quality education for every Texan. However, a closer look at the party’s 2016 state platform reveals that the party believes, “Every child should have access to an educational program that values highly skilled teachers and encourages critical thinking and creativity, without the harmful impact of high stakes standardized testing.” The party’s 2016 platform also contains several specific recommendations for funding Texas public schools, reducing recapture, ensuring that all mandates are funded, opposing using public tax dollars for private schools, prioritizing resources for pre-Kindergarten, addressing teacher quality through higher pay and teacher certification standards, reducing high-stakes testing, and other initiatives.

 

Click here to view the complete set of nonbinding propositions for the Republican and Democratic primary ballots in the 2018 primary election. For additional information about individual propositions, ATPE encourages you to check out the websites of the Texas Democratic Party and Republican Party. Remember that it is against the law for educators to use school district resources to communicate support or opposition for a ballot measure or candidate, but you can share nonpartisan and general information about the elections and the importance of voting.

Be an informed voter and use your educator voice to share input on your party’s platform. Get out and vote in the 2018 Texas primaries!

TRS board discusses future shortfalls as critical primary election looms

I was listening to a retired educator testify before the TRS board at their annual board retreat this morning. She expressed that retirees are scared about increasing healthcare premiums and upcoming changes that will greatly impact the actuarial picture of the pension fund. She also asked for TRS to advocate on behalf of retirees in dealing with the legislature. It was moving testimony. However, I wish she and all educators, active and retired, would shift their mentality from scared to angry and look not to TRS to take care of them next session, but instead look to themselves to be their own best advocates, at the polls where these decisions are really made.

The reality is TRS is an administrative agency, and while the TRS staff does a phenomenal job, their job is to implement the legislature’s will, NOT to lobby the legislature on behalf of TRS members. In fact, all state agency staff, TRS staff included, are prohibited by state law from engaging in lobbying efforts.

TRS has hard days ahead. If the defined benefit pension system or TRS-provided retiree healthcare are going to continue to exist, active teachers and retired teachers alike will have to use their voices not only at the capitol but also at the polls.

What are the factors that underpin this bleak reality?

First, TRS is set to drop its assumed rate of return from 8 percent to 7.25 percent. This one action, at least on paper, will make the fund go from healthy to anything but. There is already extreme pressure from Wall Street money managers and the politicians willing to work on their behalf to convert TRS to a 401(k) style system off of which they could make huge profits. Without other changes offsetting the drop to 7.25, this pressure will likely increase exponentially as the pension fund will look considerably more vulnerable going forward.

Second, despite the draconian changes to TRS-Care coming out of the last legislature, the retiree health insurance system, as it stands today, still is not financial sustainable. And the issues with retiree health care don’t even take into account the significant health insurance burden on active teachers, which is forcing many of them out of the education profession.

Sometimes there are smart policy initiatives that can solve statewide challenges with little or only indirect additional costs. The challenges facing TRS are NOT those kinds of challenges. The truth is that the state has for years gotten by knowingly underfunding both the pension trust fund and the retiree healthcare trust fund. On the pension side, in fact, the state’s share of an educator’s pension (at 6.8 percent) is less than half the teacher retirement system contribution rate set by the next lowest state not paying into Social Security.

Texas has now reached a point where getting by on barebones funding can no longer happen – not  if we want to continue providing teachers with a pension or retiree health insurance. What has changed?

As stated above, in response to long term market trends and despite best-in-class fund management by TRS staff, the agency is expected to reduce the assumed rate of return on the fund to 7.25 percent, down from 8 percent. This change will increase the pension’s unfunded liability by $10 billion and raise its funding period from just over 30 years to a whopping 86 years. (Anything under a 30-year funding period is considered actuarially sound, and for TRS the 30-year period has been linked to providing cost of living increases (COLAs) for retirees.) At 8 percent there was an expectation that the fund would be in a position to offer a COLA within the next few years, at 7.25 percent the fund would not be considered healthy enough to offer retirees a COLA for at least the next 56 years.
In order to offset the adjustment to the assumed rate of return, the TRS pension fund’s contribution rate will need to be increased enough to generate an additional $1.4 to 1.6 billion per biennium.

TRS must be honest and stay above political bias or pressure in setting its estimated rate of return. In truth, a lower assumed rate of return, as long as it is coupled with a proper contribution rate, will produce a healthier pension system in the long run. However, because it is up to the legislature and not TRS to adjust the contribution rate, it is vital that the agency be diligent and expedient in communicating to its members the realities and potential consequences of a decision to adjust the fund’s assumed rate of return.

In addition to needing $1.5 billion or more in new pension contributions, TRS will also need substantial additional dollars just to sustain TRS-Care at the new 2018 levels. In all, TRS estimates that it will be asking the legislature to appropriate between 2 and 2.5 billion additional dollars next biennium. Lobbyists for each of the four statewide educators groups (including ATPE), the retired educators group, and a group representing school districts, when given the opportunity to comment, expressed their belief that such an ask would be a complete non-starter with the current group of legislators, particularly the Governor, Lt Governor, and the majority of Texas Senate.

Without substantial additional funds; TRS-Care will quickly go bankrupt and cease to exist. Active teachers’ health insurance costs will continue to rise unchecked pushing more and more good teachers out of the profession, and the TRS pension fund will be on a certain path toward being abolished. That is the very likely future, unless retired and active educators alike decide to make their voices heard at the polls this election year. Early voting starts Tuesday, Feb 20, and runs through Friday, March 2. Election day is Tuesday, March 6. With over one million active and retired education professionals in the state of Texas, the question is not whether you can save your retirement, fix your health insurance, and improve public education policy for 5.4 million students in this state. No, the only question is – will you?

Important update on TRS retiree healthcare

ATPE has just received the following announcement from the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) regarding participants, members, or their dependents who originally terminated coverage with TRS-Care between July 1, 2017- January 1, 2018, but want to return.

For more information please visit the TRS Website of contact TRS at 1-888-237-6762.

From TRS:
2018 TRS-Care Plan Changes Grace Period

The Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) has received a number of requests from TRS-Care participants who terminated health plan coverage but want to return to TRS-Care.

Under TRS plan rules, retirees and dependents who terminate coverage cannot return to TRS-Care unless they experience a rare special enrollment event. However, TRS understands that there may be some individuals who did not wish to leave TRS-Care, or who now wish to reverse their decision and re-enroll.

Therefore, TRS is offering a one-time grace period until February 28, 2018 to allow former TRS-Care participants to re-enroll in TRS-Care if they terminated coverage or dropped a dependent due to the 2018 plan changes.

Who can re-enroll in TRS-Care during the grace period:

To be eligible for this grace period, participants must have a TRS-Care termination date of July 1, 2017 through January 1, 2018.

This is not an opportunity to add new dependents. You can only reinstate dependents that were previously covered under TRS-Care and were terminated from TRS-Care coverage between July 1, 2017 and January 1, 2018.

Steps to take to re-enroll:

To re-enroll with TRS-Care, please submit a signed application for TRS-Care. Your application must be post-marked no later than February 28, 2018. Your coverage will be effective the first day of the month following the time we receive your application.

Please note that if you submit your application near the end of the month, there may be a delay until TRS can make your coverage retroactively effective. Please submit your application as soon as possible.

If you wish to re-enroll in TRS-Care, please complete the application that applies to you based on your Medicare status, and sign and return the application to TRS postmarked no later than February 28, 2018.

There are two versions of the application—one for participants with Medicare and one for retirees without Medicare.

Please refer to the following link on the TRS website for more information.

2018 Resolutions

January is a time of new beginnings – a new year, a new semester, and new chances to do things better than before. In every evenly numbered year, January is also a time of renewed emphasis on elections, a renewal of their own, serving as a critical part of our American form of government.

Politically, 2017 was a very different and in many ways challenging year. Both nationally and here in Texas the inability of serious people to work together to accomplish the people’s business seemed to reach an all-time high. In the face of such mass dysfunction it’s tempting to throw your hands up and simply retreat, or further retreat, from the political process that drives our American system of government. However, that is the very temptation we must all collectively resist.

We must resist the urge to bury our heads because a system of government set up for the people requires deep, meaningful, and widespread engagement by the people to remain, or return, to a functional state. It is almost certainly the lack of deep, meaningful, and widespread engagement by the people that has gotten us to where we are in the first place. So, this January I implore you, for your own sake and for the sake of all Texans and Americans, from the youngest to the oldest, resolve to renew your commitment to engaged informed citizenship.

Certainly a commitment to better citizenship includes a commitment to vote, not just in November but in every election, but it goes beyond merely showing up to the ballot box.

Being an engaged and informed citizen requires that you be an informed voter and an active constituent. You have to know what issues your elected officials can truly impact and what their positions on those issues are. That requires digging past rhetoric, red herrings and meaningless political labels. Once an official is in office engaged citizenship requires you to watch to see that your elected representatives’ actions in office match up to their words on the campaign trail. Finally, when your representatives don’t live up to your expectations, it’s up to you as the citizen being represented to tell them so; first through direct communication and ultimately by voting them out of office if they fail to represent you.

Engaged informed citizenship is not easy, but it is doable, and it is necessary to maintain a functional democracy. While everyone must individually resolve to do their part, you thankfully don’t have to go it alone. You can help yourself be accountable to vote by signing the Texas Educators Vote oath. You can learn more about the candidates’ stances and incumbents’ voting records on education right here on the Teach the Vote candidate profiles. You can give yourself the support and encouragement of your peers by joining the Texans for Public Education Facebook group.

The last day to register to vote in the 2018 primaries is Monday, February 5. The early voting period runs from Tuesday, February 20, through Friday, March 2. Election Day is Tuesday, March 6.

With the voter registration deadline only thirty days away there is no better time than the present to check your registration status and get registered to vote.

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.