CHARLIE JEHLEN — Cost of living adjustment needed for public school retirees

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, May 19, 2021

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Imagine walking into a bank with your family to sign the mortgage on your very first house.

You and your spouse have worked years to save the down payment. You met several times over the years with the banker to track your income and improve your credit score. Entering the lobby, you are carrying all the requested paperwork proving you are a good credit risk.

Your children and spouse can barely contain their excitement as they settle into the oversized chairs in the bank’s meeting room. But then, the banker tells you, “I’m sorry, but we changed our lending policies this morning. The documents I gave you are no longer acceptable and there is no time for you to complete the new application before the bank closes. You will not get the house today, but we hope you will apply again in two years.”

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This is the situation Texas teachers woke up to last Wednesday morning. House Bill 3214, granting a Cost Of Living Adjustment for public school retirees, will not be considered by the state legislature this session.

For years, retiree advocates have worked with the state legislature and the Texas Teachers Retirement System to improve and protect the pension fund.

In 2013 we were told that once the pension fund was actuarily sound, the legislature would consider a pension increase for retirees.

Entering this year’s session, TRS reported the pension fund was now sound and could support the COLA. Five representatives authored House Bill 3214, which would grant a COLA capped at $100 monthly.

Eighty-eight representatives from both parties co-signed the bill. After discussion HB 3214 was unanimously approved out of the Pensions, Investments and Financial Services Committee.

But when HB 3214 reached the Calendar Committee, which schedules bills for House action, TRS moved the goalposts. Privately, the TRS leadership informed legislative leaders that that projected cost of the COLA would be more than previously reported.

This information spooked the leadership and last minute efforts by retired educators to show that the new numbers would not affect the pension’s viability were to no avail.

HB 3214 was not scheduled for debate before last Tuesday’s deadline. The TRS COLA bill is dead for two years, unless the governor calls a special session and puts it on floor calendar himself.

Why would the TRS leadership go through the back door to kill the COLA for its own retirees? The COLA request was based on the numbers provided by TRS before the legislative session started.

The pension fund has grown so large that increased payouts would not require any additional state funding. Some public school retirees have not had an increase in their pension for 17 years.

Most retirees get less than $2,000 each month from their pension. There were no questions or discouraging words brought up by TRS as HB 3214 was drafted, co-signed, discussed, and approved through the committee process. Why the bait and switch by TRS?

It is well known that the leadership of TRS has problems. Their questionable purchase of expensive office space in Austin coupled with the high salaries and bonuses paid their staff and investment brokers were part of a Sunset Review by the legislature this session.

During the process, advocates provided information and opinions on how TRS could reduce their overhead costs and improve service and benefits to public education retirees. Our recommendations were part of the TRS Sunset Report approved by the Legislature.

Is this payback from TRS for questioning their decisions?

In a perfect world, the Calendar Committee would have sent HB 3214 to the House floor for a vote. In open debate, the midnight objections of TRS could have been discussed.

Obviously, retired educators do not want to endanger the long term viability of their pension fund. But public school retirees have been promised a COLA for years.

Advocates coordinated with TRS and legislators to study the situation and calculated what amount of increase was feasible. HB 3214 was written based on numbers all parties agreed on. This rejection of the COLA by TRS was a slap to the face of all retirees.

A promise made should have been kept.

This bipartisan bill deserves a vote. Retired educators deserve help with rising health care costs.

Please contact Governor Greg Abbott and urge him to include a Cost of Living Adjustment for public school retirees in his agenda for the special session.


— Charlie Jehlen is a retired Texas public school educator and a Groves resident