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Since November 2014, when a large number of anti-state services and anti-state worker candidates were elected to the Texas Legislature, TSEU knew that we were heading into one of the most difficult legislative sessions our union has ever faced. At the start of the Legislative Session in January, every TSEU priority was under attack: pay, pensions, health care, state services, and our union’s very right to exist and to have a voice.
In the midst of some of the greatest attacks TSEU ever faced, union members refused to relent to pressure from opposing legislators and the extreme interest groups who back them. Throughout the session, TSEU members generated countless phone calls into the state capitol, attended nearly 400 legislative visits and meetings, and sent over 2,100 pay raise post cards.
While the Legislature did take some actions that will negatively affect state employees, retirees, and the services we provide, the efforts of thousands of TSEU members produced some incredible victories that defied many experts’ predictions. The following is a summary of events relevant to TSEU that occurred in the 2015 legislative session.
At the beginning of the Legislative Session, The state of Texas had an estimated $18 billion budget surplus plus another $11 billion in the “Rainy Day Fund”, adding up to nearly $30 billion in additional funding above the current budget available for the 2016-2017 biennium. Despite the pressing need to provide an across-the-board pay raise for state workers and retirees, and to increase funding for state services and higher education, many lawmakers saw the excess funds as an opportunity to give tax cuts to businesses and large corporations.
“We need to deal with the real problems of this state first and then deal with tax cuts… I cannot support tax cuts until I know there’s a plan in place to meet the needs of this state.” Senator Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler)
Legislators from both political parties expressed concerns over using the surplus revenue for tax cuts, while many state programs and services remained underfunded. However, these voices were out-voted by the majority of lawmakers from both chambers, who agreed on a $3.8 billion tax cut package as one of the first measures adopted in the budget. In the end, the tax cuts included a small property tax cut and a 25% cut in the business franchise tax.
The majority of Texans will see little benefit from the tax plan which only allows for a $126 per year tax break for the average homeowner. Texans who don’t own a home or a business will see no tax cut at all.
Even worse, lawmakers left $6.4 billion on the table in unspent state revenue. That’s $6.4 billion that could have been used for a real across-the-board pay raise for state workers, providing a cost-of-living increase for retirees, hiring more staff to reduce workloads, and to improve the quality of state services.
Lawmakers did fully fund employee pension and health care plans (more details below) and allocated funding for an additional 550 staff in the Family Protective Services. However, many critical needs for state employees and state services remained unmet. The take away from this session’s budget is that even in the midst of economic prosperity, the Texas Legislature chose not to put state employee salaries on par with the rising cost of living and did not fund public services, education, and infrastructure at a level that meets the needs of our state’s growing population.
Winning an across-the-board pay raise was a top priority for TSEU members this session. Unfortunately, most state employees will see no real pay increase. This is because even though lawmakers provided a 2.5% across-the-board salary increase for state agency employees, the raise was part of a larger plan to increase funding for the ERS pension plan (see Pensions section below). The 2.5% pay increase will be offset by the increase in the employee contribution into the ERS pension fund, which is scheduled to go up to 9.5% on September 1st, 2015. All of the 2.5% pay increase will be eaten up by the pension contribution increase, leaving state employee pay stagnant. University employees were once again excluded from the across-the-board pay increase. TSEU activists at state universities will be organizing and mobilizing to win a flat-amount, across-the-board pay increase for university employees.
Parole Officers in TDCJ will receive an 8% salary increase, while Juvenile Correctional Officers in TJJD will receive a 5% increase (2.5% in 2016 and 2.5% in 2017), all on top of the 2.5% across-the-board raise.
The budget also mandates that HHSC allocate $6.6million for pay raises to Registered Nurses and Licensed Vocation Nurses in SSLCs and State Hospitals who work in “high turnover” locations. No additional information was included in the budget that tells which specific locations will receive a pay raise and how much the pay raise will be. TSEU will be working to find out more details on this.
TSEU’s long-held position is that all state and university employees need an across-the-board pay raise that meets the rising costs of living. We will continue organizing and mobilizing from now, through the elections in 2016, and into the 2017 Legislative session to win a real across-the-board pay raise.
Pensions – Victory!
The Texas Legislature passed the House plan to restore the ERS fund back to financial stability. Going into the 2015 Legislative Session, the Employee Retirement System (ERS) pension fund had $7.5 billion unfunded liability which was the result of underfunding from the Texas Legislature over the past two decades, coupled with a declining state employee workforce. To solve this problem, some lawmakers were asking state employees to put “more skin in the game” by cutting benefits and increasing costs. State employees had already endured cost increases and benefit cuts in both 2009 and 2013.
TSEU members rallied around the state, through phone call mobilizations and numerous public testimonies at the Capitol, to push for full funding of our pension plan without any cost increases or benefit cuts.
On March 10th, after significant pressure from TSEU members and allies, leaders of the House Appropriations and Pensions Committees laid out their plan to put the ERS pension fund on a path to sustainability. Among them was TSEU ally Representative Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) who strongly pushed for no cuts to benefits or pay.
The House proposal called for:
- increasing the state’s contribution to 9.5% of employeepay (currently at 7.5%)
- increasing the employee’s contribution to 9.5% of pay (currently at 6.9%) in September 2015
- maintaining the agency contribution at .5% of employee pay
- providing a 2.5% across-the-board pay raise for all state employees to offset the increased contribution
After the release of the House pension proposal, the Senate began the work of producing a counter proposal that was likely to include benefit and pay cuts. TSEU members again mobilized to call on Senators to accept the House’s plan to fully fund the pension with no cuts. The Senate never publicly released their pension proposal and eventually accepted the House proposal through the passage of HB 9 by Representative Dan Flynn (R -Van).
This victory puts the ERS pension fund on a path to financial stability without any benefit cuts or net pay cuts, making the fund actuarially sound by the 2017 Legislative Session. This also puts TSEU in a better position to win a long overdue cost-of-living increase for current retirees during the next legislative session. In order for the 91,000 state agency retirees in ERS to receive a COLA, the fund must be 100% actuarially sound. ERS retirees have not received an increase in their pension annuities since 2001.
The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) pension fund remains actuarially sound. However, legislation that would have provided a COLA for current TRS retirees failed to pass. Winning a COLA for all retirees and getting a real pay raise for active employees will be a top priority in the next session.
Health Care Benefits
The legislature fully funded health care benefits for both state agency and university employees in the ERS Group Benefit Plan, along with the University of Texas and the Texas A&M health care plans. However, the Legislature passed the Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) bill HB 966 by Rep. Myra Crownover (R-Denton). HB 966 only applies to state employees and retirees in the ERS Group Benefit Plan.
Health Savings Accounts are alternative health plans that deter employees from utilizing regular health services through very high deductibles attached with a limited fund account for health care needs. These health plans place more financial burden on those who have a higher need for health care, such as the elderly, women, and the chronically ill. Providing these plans as an option will also mislead younger and healthier employees into choosing a health plan that would be more expensive to them later in life. And when younger, healthier employees opt into an HSA, costs go up for those who choose to keep their traditional health care plan. Previous experiments with HSAs and high deductible plans have failed within the Texas A&M system and in other states, as well.
TSEU had been successful in defeating Health Savings Accounts for the five previous legislative sessions. The bill was passed, despite TSEU members putting up a hard fight to stop it by making phone calls, testifying at public hearings, and working with allied legislators to speak out against the bill on the House floor. Because of our strong resistance, we were able to pass amendments into HB 966 that provide a level of protection to ensure the sustainability of the traditional health plan.
A number of legislators worked closely with TSEU and fought with us against HSAs. They include Rep. Ron Reynolds (D- Missouri City), Rep. Sylvester Turner (D- Houston), Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso), Rep. Helen Giddings (D-Dallas), Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville), and Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio).
more information coming soon . . .
TSEU will provide information to educate state workers and retirees on the impact of HSAs (Health Savings Accounts) while encouraging them not to opt into these alternative plans. TSEU members are prepared to come back in the next legislative session and fight to get HSAs eliminated.
Defeating SSLC closures VICTORY!
Senate Bill 204 filed by Sen. Juan Hinojosa (D- South Texas), the DADS Sunset bill, called for the closure of the Austin State Supported Living Center (SSLC) and setting up a commission to consolidate and to close other facilities. SB 204 died after House and Senate conferees failed to reach an agreement to reconcile the versions of the bill passed by each. The bill had been a product of recommendations proposed by the Texas Sunset Commission one year ago.
TSEU, the Family and Guardian Association of Austin SSLC, and PART (a statewide advocacy organization for SSLC residents and their families) launched a year-long campaign to stop the closure of any SSLC. The system of 11 SSLCs around the state are home to thousands of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are often very medically fragile. Members across the state made phone calls and legislative visits, sent postcards, testified at committee hearings and walked the floors of the Capitol with family and guardians until we won.
The Senate passed SB 204 in its original form but, due to persistent mobilizing from TSEU members and Guardian activists, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved amendments stripping out the language that called for the closures of SSLCs.
This is a huge victory for TSEU and its allies who worked together to defeat this attempt to close SSLCs. Many believed the closures were a certainty when the DADS Sunset Committee announced the proposal more than a year ago.
Several key legislators fought to make sure the State Supported Living Centers were not closed. Representatives Susan King (R-Abilene), Paul Workman (R-Austin) and Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) did much of the heavy lifting in the House to get amendments attached to stop the closures with overwhelming support. Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) worked to get a similar amendment attached to the bill in the Senate but could not get enough support. As we celebrate this victory for state employees, the loved ones of the SSLC residents and the individuals who depend upon these crucial services, we must keep in mind that there will be future closure attempts and that there is still work to be done to improve the quality of care and the infrastructure at SSLCs.
Stopping the Privatization of Terrell State Hospital – Victory!
TSEU was successful in stopping the privatization of Terrell State Hospital. After unethical contracting practices came to light within the Health and Human Services Commission, the agency announced that “no further action” will be taken on the request for proposal and the tentative contract award that had been announced late last year. That contract award would have given control of the Terrell State Hospital to private prison corporation GEO Care and its subsidiary, Correct Care Solutions.
This victory would not have happened without TSEU and our allies fighting back. Since the first announcement of HHSC’s plans to privatize the hospital, union members across the state have mobilized phone calls and meetings with legislators, dozens of members turned out for town hall meetings in Terrell to voice their opposition, and we helped bring together a coalition of community leaders in Terrell, patient advocacy groups, and state employees.
The agency’s announcement to scrap the plan to privatize Terrell followed a scathing report released by the State Auditor’s Office denouncing the flawed effort to seek that proposed contract. The audit said HHSC did not ensure the “best value to the state” when it tentatively decided to hire Correct Care Solutions to run the hospital. Among the problems identified, the commission didn’t conduct the proper assessment to justify hiring a private operator, the value of the contract was vastly underestimated and the system didn’t thoroughly vet the private healthcare provider, instead relying solely on the provider’s own information.
On top of canceling the contract proposal, a rider was included in the State Budget that prohibits HHSC from using any of it’s funding to solicit a contract bid that would privatize any of the existing State Hospitals for the next biennium.
Senate Bill 200, filed by Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), was based on recommendations from the Sunset Commission to abolish all five Human Services agencies and consolidate them into a single mega-agency. Consolidation of the human services agencies would hurt the specialized functions of the different agencies, from investigating child abuse to providing health services to people with disabilities, and hundreds of other services and programs that Texans rely upon.
SB 200, in its original form, would also transfer significant authority to the executive commissioner, with little chance for legislators and public citizens to weigh in and provide oversight on important decisions such as privatization of services.
Supporters of consolidation touted the plans as a way to cut agency budgets by streamlining services and reducing the number of state employees. Senator Don Huffines (R-Dallas) was quoted as saying: “the real cost savings will be achieved through reducing the number of state employees… taxpayers are liable not only for the salaries for the tens of thousands of employees, but also for their benefits.”
A few weeks after SB 200 was filed, Gov. Gregg Abbott released his “Strike Force” report which emphasized that the creation of a mega-agency would create a new series of inefficiencies.
A “single large bureaucracy may make HHS programs even less accessible and efficient than the current structure, even with its flaws…Full consolidation would create enormous potential problems with span of control and oversight for the executive commissioner.”
In response to the Governor’s “Strike Force” Report, the Senate adopted amendments to SB 200 that delay the consolidation of FPS and DSHS and to allow for more public input via public hearings throughout the transition process. HHSC, DADS, and DARS will be combined no later than September 1st, 2017 and FPS and DSHS will be combined after a transition study is completed that lays out a timeline for them. TSEU members consistently spoke out in hearings against this plan and will be closely involved as the transitions begin to take place.
Throughout the Legislative Session, anti-union interest groups aggressively pushed a series of bills that would eliminate the rights of public employees to contribute to a union or employee association through their paychecks. This was a direct attack on state employees’ and retirees right to have a voice over issues that matter to us.
A total of three bills were filed to eliminate payroll deduction. The first bill was HB 1749 filed in late February by Rep. Gary Elkins (R-Houston). Freshman Senator Bob Hall (R–Dallas) filed the second version of payroll deduction bill, SB 1157. Due to pressure from TSEU and other public sector unions, HB 1749 and SB 1157 never gained momentum and the bills died in committee.
On March 13, the deadline for filing bills in the legislature, Senator Joan Huffman who is chairwoman of the powerful Senate State Affairs Committee, filed the third and final version of the payroll deduction bill, SB 1968. Unlike previous versions of the dues deduction bills, SB 1968 excluded police, fire fighters, and emergency response employees from losing payroll deduction. This blatant divide and conquer strategy proved to be ineffective as multiple police and firefighter unions fought in solidarity with TSEU against this bill.
On April 9th, the day after TSEU’s Lobby Day, the Senate State Affairs Committee held a hearing on SB 1968. TSEU and members from allied unions testified, citing financial security and economic freedom as key reasons for opposing the bill. SB 1968 was voted out of committee and passed through the Senate, along party lines.
When SB 1968 was sent to the House, the bill was referred to the House State Affairs Committee Chaired by Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana). Chairman Byron Cook scheduled a public hearing for SB 1968 on May 21st at 8am. Nearly 250 union members from TSEU, teachers unions, police and firefighter unions, and the correctional employees union, along with members from various private sector unions, drove into Austin to testify against the bill. At the beginning of the hearing, Chairman Cook announced that he was going to end public testimony at 10am. With only two hours allowed for union members to testify, just a small fraction of 250 union members would have the opportunity to testify against the bill – many of these activists drove through the night to Austin after working a full shift on the job.
Only two witnesses testified in support of ending payroll deductions, but their feeble arguments and inaccurate statements were drowned out by dozens of union members who gave rousing testimonies that reflected our commitment to public service, our determination to have a voice for ourselves and the citizens we serve, while displaying the power of solidarity within the labor movement as a whole. TSEU President Judy Lugo and activist Carmen Duron (Corpus Christi SSLC) were able to testify, putting the face of frontline state employees on this issue. The testimony and presence of so many TSEU members generated a positive response from the members of the House State Affairs Committee.
Immediately after public testimony, union members headed to the front of the House of Representatives to express their disappointment that everyone was not given the opportunity to testify. Some members of the State Affairs Committee came off the House floor to address members personally. After an hour of rallying in front of the House floor, union members dispersed.
For the next few days, hundreds of union members continued to make calls into the House State Affairs Committee until Chairman Byron Cook publicly announced that he would not take a vote on the bill and SB 1968 would die in committee.
There was a last ditch effort by the union busters to eliminate payroll deduction through an amendment to the campaign finance ethics bill SB 19. Their tactic failed and unions officially defeated all efforts to ban payroll deduction. This is a tremendous victory for TSEU and the Texas Labor Movement but we can be sure that attempts to eliminate dues deduction will resurface in the 2017 Legislative Session.