On Wednesday April 20th, the House Appropriations Subcommittee held a hearing at the Texas Capitol to discuss the issue of providing a cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) for retired state employees who receive their pensions from the Employee Retirement System (ERS). Late last year, Speaker of the House Joe Straus charged the Appropriation Committee to investigate methods to provide state retirees with a long over-due pension increase. State retirees in ERS have not received a pension increase since 2001 and the average ERS pension is only $1600.Eight TSEU members from the Retirees Organizing Committee (ROC) were in attendance with three of them offering public testimony. Mary Esther Escobedo (retired from the Office of Attorney General in San Antonio), Anitra Patterson (retired from Health and Human Services/Child Protective Services in Dallas) and Jerry Wald (retired from the Department of Aging and Disability Services in Houston) were among the TSEU- ROC members who testified.
In their testimonies, ROC members illustrated the challenges of living in 2016 on a 2001 pension. Mary Esther Escobedo gave examples of fellow state retirees in San Antonio who struggled to afford food and medical prescriptions. While Anitra Patterson offered a detailed account of the day-to-day challenges state employees endure on the job prior to retirement. Jerry Wald concluded public testimony by breaking down the numbers on what it takes for state retirees to live on low and stagnant pensions in the midst of rising cost of living. TSEU-ROC members from around the state also made dozens of phone calls to lawmakers on the House Appropriations Subcommittee, urging lawmakers to take action on state retiree pension increases.
Testimony from TSEU-ROC members garnered statewide attention and sincere responses from lawmakers on the subcommittee. The Texas Tribune, a statewide news outlet covering Texas politics published an article titled “State Workers Want Pensions to Keep Up with Times” that covered details on the hearing.
The Subcommittee also heard testimony from the Legislative Budget Board and ERS. Both agencies discussed the legal barriers on providing retirees with a COLA. According to state law, public pension plans must be considered “actuarially sound” before paying out pension increases; which means that the pension fund must be able to pay-off its debt within a 31 year period. Over the past two decades, lawmakers have consistently underfunded the ERS pension funds, resulting in an $8 billion deficit. Last year in the 2015 Legislative Session, TSEU worked with lawmakers and allies to pass House Bill 9 that will set the ERS pension fund back on a path to actuarial soundness starting in 2017.
State law also says that the legislature cannot contribute more than 10% of payroll costs into public pension funds unless the Governor declares an emergency need for funding. However, ERS’s legal advisors believe the state can go above the 10% limit if it’s necessary to keep the pension fund financially stable. Retiring House Appropriations Chairman John Otto expressed urgency in giving ERS retirees a COLA despite the legal barriers by asking the Legislative Budget Board “how can we get this done?”
Regardless of these legal barriers, state lawmakers have a responsibility to ensure that the retirees who dedicated their careers to public service have a pension that keeps up with today’s cost of living. The testimony of TSEU-ROC members at the hearing last week was only part of a broader movement to increase pensions for state retirees in both ERS and TRS. Since January, TSEU-ROC members have been sending personally written letters to lawmakers telling their story on why a pension increase is critically needed. In addition to that, more state retirees have been joining ROC and getting involved in their local committees to help build our movement for better pensions. We must keep organizing and mobilizing until we win a cost of living adjustment for all state retirees in both ERS and TRS.
what to do now: SEND A LETTER!
If you haven’t already, write a letter to the House Appropriations Committee explaining why state retirees desperately need a COLA in 2017!
Here’s a sample letter: (Please do not copy and paste sample letter. Writing a letter in your own words will have more of an impact with legislators).
Dear members of the House Appropriations Committee, I urge you to support a pension cost of living adjustment for retired state employees and teachers. I’m a retired state employee who worked for the Attorney General’s Child Support Division. Just about every year since my retirement in 2003, I’ve seen an increase in the amount deducted from my pension for dependents’ health insurance, while our pension remains flat. Last year, the increase deducted was $20 a month. These deduction increases add up over time to a significant pension reduction. I think many retirees share my situation, while others are facing even worse circumstances. Even though many of my fellow retirees dedicated their careers to serving the State of Texas, they worked for low pay throughout their careers. As a result, their pensions are quite low and have been unable to keep up with the higher prices we are paying for food, utilities, transportation, health care, and other basic necessities. I ask this committee to make giving state retirees a cost of living adjustment a high priority going into the next legislative session.
SEND LETTERS TO:
1. House Appropriations Committee
Attn: Malika Te
P.O. Box 2910 / Austin, TX 78768
2 . Also, send a copy to your own House Representative.
WHO REPRESENTS ME – Look up your elected officials using your home address. You will get a link to your Texas State Representative’s contact information and mailing address
3. And finally, let TSEU know you sent the letter by calling or emailing TSEU Organizer Anitra Patterson in the Dallas office: (214) 942-4305; email@example.com (please share a copy of your letter with us, if possible.)