PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

Opinion

May 15, 2013

Despite breakdown, budget gap small

AUSTIN — You may have heard or read about budget negotiations breaking down last week between Senate and House leaders.  The truth is we are only $140.2 million apart.  When you compare that figure with the general revenue budget figure of $100 billion, it actually means we're very close.    

A difference of opinion exists on how we should pay for much-needed water and transportation infrastructure.  House leaders canceled budget meetings last week, so it's hard to resolve differences when you are not meeting and negotiating.  

Hopefully, by the time you read this message, meetings will have resumed and we will have made progress on closing the gap.  The budget is the only bill the Texas Legislature is required to pass, and the legislative session ends May 27.

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Throughout the session, my office has received many calls, emails and letters from constituents interested in the Teacher Retirement System legislation.  I'm pleased to report the Senate voted unanimously last week for SB 1458, designed to build actuarial soundness to TRS. To accomplish this, teachers and taxpayers both will contribute more into the system.

It took many weeks to work out the snags in this bill before it could earn unanimous support from senators and various teacher groups. Under SB 1458 the state's contribution rate will be boosted from 6.4 to 6.8 percent and teacher contribution rate would gradually increase from 6.4 to 7.7 percent.

School districts, for the first time, would also contribute 1.5 percent of an active member's salary into the fund - if the district does not currently participate in the Social Security system.  (Most school districts do not participate in the Social Security system.)

More than 1.3 million Texans are members of the Teacher Retirement System, and the system provides approximately 300,000 pensions to retired educators.

The bill increases the minimum retirement age to 62 for teachers not vested in the plan as of Sept. 1, 2014.  A teacher who retires early will receive a 5 percent decrease from his/her monthly annuity payment for each year he or she retires before the age of 62.

An important feature for long-time retired school teachers is the 3 percent cost of living allowance in this bill.  Retirees qualify for this benefit if they retired prior to Aug. 31, 1999. This group has not received a COLA in 12 years. SB 1458 is now in the Texas House awaiting their action.  

It’s important we preserve the Teacher Retirement System for the benefit of the people who are retired and for those who will retire in the future. All of the above mentioned efforts place the retirement plan on a path to actuarial soundness. I am grateful for Senator Robert Duncan's tireless work on this issue, along with many interested stakeholder groups.  SB 1458 does not affect retired teacher health care, which, most likely, will be addressed in the 2015 legislative session.  

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Major reforms are likely coming very soon for public education, but a final plan won't be known until the Senate and House agree on a compromise for HB 5. The Senate voted unanimously on a version last week to reduce the number of end-of-course tests for graduation from 15 to 5 - as does the House bill.  

The Senate also adopted my amendment to give school districts the option to measure student progress in Algebra II and English III.  These two optional assessments will NOT affect a student's eligibility to graduate and may NOT be used for school accountability ratings, student rankings, teacher evaluation or college admission.  The decision to assess progress in these two particular courses would be made at the local district level.  Since Algebra II and English III are statistically linked to post-secondary success, local districts may find these assessments useful to review offered curriculum and/or student-college readiness.  Other districts may choose not to assess or offer locally-developed assessments.   Either way, it will be up to the local school district to decide.  

HB 5 will also reduce the number of student-testing days from approximately 90 to fewer than 25. The goal is to provide more flexibility to accommodate different students with varied talents.

Look for more details on final education reform measures when agreement is reached with the Texas House.  

Senator Williams represents Senate District 4 covering all or portions of Montgomery, Chambers, Harris, Jefferson and Galveston Counties, and serves as Chairman of the Texas Senate Finance Committee and is a member of the Senate State Affairs, Open Government and Administration Committees.

 

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