Rainy Day Fund

Unlock the Rainy Day Fund for educators, retirees


If teachers are going to get a pay raise and education retirees are going to get any meaningful relief from health care costs, Gov. Abbott, Lt. Gov. Patrick and the Senate majority are going to have to quit hoarding $10 billion of public funds – money that belongs to teachers, retirees, parents and other taxpayers.

This is the crux of the education funding issue before the special legislative session. Abbott, Patrick and their Senate allies refuse to spend the state’s $10 billion Rainy Day savings account for what it was intended – to meet an emergency public need. Education funding, including teacher pay and a retiree health care system that is in danger of crumbling and bankrupting retirees, is clearly an emergency.

Speaker Joe Straus and many House members, as they were during the regular legislative session, are ready to use a small portion of that fund – no more than 10 to 20 percent – to boost teacher pay, ease retiree health care costs and perhaps begin improving the school finance system.

Abbott and Patrick claim to support a teacher pay raise but refuse to spend any state funds, including the Rainy Day Fund, to pay for it. The Senate has approved a Patrick bill that supposedly would provide temporary health care relief to retirees and award bonuses (maybe) to some teachers. But instead of providing more funding, the bill would allegedly cover its costs by delaying payments to a woefully under-funded health care system for low-income Texans. At the Capitol, this is called an “accounting trick.” You also could call it a form of financial hocus-pocus.

Sen. Jane Nelson, the sponsor of the Patrick Senate bill, said using the Rainy Day Fund was not a permanent solution to education funding. She refused to admit that the Rainy Day Fund is a sound, legitimate source of emergency funding, certainly better than hers and Patrick’s now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t approach. Lawmakers need to use a small part of the Rainy Day Fund now and come back in the next regular session to enact a more-permanent plan for adequate, equitable school funding.

Abbott and Patrick persist in trying to mislead the public by claiming that the Rainy Day Fund is supposed to be reserved for the most catastrophic of physical disasters, such as hurricanes. Rep. John Zerwas, the Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, has called that interpretation “totally false.”

In truth, the fund, created in the 1980s in the wake of a serious budgetary emergency, was intended to help the state through future budgetary emergencies, such as what we are experiencing now. Previous Legislatures have periodically withdrawn from the fund for an assortment of emergency needs, and the fund repeatedly has been replenished with oil and natural gas production taxes and some general tax revenue.

The state comptroller has predicted the fund will grow to more than $11 billion by the end of fiscal 2019 if left untouched. Citing financial experts, Zerwas said the state can afford a partial withdrawal of several billion dollars without endangering the state’s credit rating.

By locking up the fund, Abbott and Patrick are representing the selfish interests of wealthy ideologues who want to shrink state government, including public schools, and privatize much of private education. If they succeed, today’s emergency could very well become a catastrophe tomorrow.





Taking teachers for granted with a fake pay “raise”


The fake teacher “pay raise” bill that the full Senate will vote on this week, perhaps today, is a product of an alternate universe, where trickery trumps reality and inhabitants believe they can take teachers’ votes for granted.

After all, Gov. Abbott, Lt.Gov. Patrick and the Senate majority – the lead inhabitants of this alternate universe — have been ignoring the needs of educators for years, and they are still in Austin.

Maybe that sense of hubris is what promoted Sen. Jane Nelson, the sponsor of the fake pay raise bill, to criticize House members for wanting to dip into the $10 BILLION Rainy Day Fund to pay for a real pay raise for educators. She called that a “false promise” and short-term solution.

So, how do Nelson and Dan Patrick propose “paying” for a pay “raise” for teachers and reducing health care costs for retirees?

First, they would put off a teacher pay raise until 2019 and then try to force local property taxpayers – who already pay for most education funding – to come up with the money. Then, they would use an accounting trick to delay payment to an under-funded health care system to allegedly give retired educators some limited, temporary relief.

The false promise, folks, is coming from the Senate leadership, and apparently the governor approves of the trickery because he hasn’t proposed an additional dime in state funding for teacher pay or education either.

The Rainy Day Fund – it’s the taxpayer’s money, not Dan Patrick’s or Greg Abbott’s – is $10 billion and growing. That is more than enough to raise teacher pay, improve health care for retirees and have lots of money left in the treasury.

It’s a real solution, not a sleight of hand designed to fool people on the eve of an election year.



Retired educators need more than kind words and fond memories


For school teachers and especially for education retirees, legislative talk can be cheap, very cheap. And with every “teacher appreciation” resolution in the House or the Senate and every “fond” memory a lawmaker shares about a “favorite” teacher, the legislative debt to educators just grows deeper.

The fact that most active teachers in Texas are woefully underpaid is bad enough, but the plight of thousands of school retirees is even worse. For some, it will become downright treacherous and life-threatening if the Legislature doesn’t do something this session to save their health care coverage without bankrupting the retirees.

As the Houston Chronicle pointed out in an editorial, linked below, the school retirees’ health care plan, TRS-Care, “is going to fail without legislative action” and the “impact on retired educators will be severe.” So far, there is no real legislative fix in sight this session, and the clock is ticking.

In the Senate, Sen . Joan Huffman of Houston is sponsoring SB788, which supposedly would address the problem, but not really. This is the same Sen. Huffman who also is sponsoring SB13, a separate bill aimed at crippling teacher and other public employee advocacy organizations.

Huffman’s SB788, the TRS-Care bill, is what the Chronicle editorial calls “a disingenuous half measure that will barely keep the plan alive while devastating the financial condition of some retired teachers, or worse, leaving many without any health care at all.”

Huffman’s bill would increase state funding by about $300 million, far short of the $1 billion shortfall that TRS-Care is facing. Under her plan, the deductible for an individual retiree would jump from about $400 to $4,000. Keep in mind the average retired teacher receives only about $2,035 a month in retirement benefits. Most retired teachers don’t receive Social Security, and many aren’t old enough to get Medicare.

SB788 is not a fix for what is rapidly becoming a crisis.

Texas’ 262,000 retired teachers spent much of their adult lives securing Texas’ future with barely adequate – or worse – pay. They are entitled to a secure health care system, and there is more than enough money – about $12 billion– in the state’s Rainy Day Fund to keep TRS-Care solvent and increase funding for public schools. Both are critical issues the Legislature has persisted in putting off.

Many of us have stories to tell about favorite teachers, and legislators are no exception. But unlike most of us, legislators are in a position to provide a secure retirement for educators. Fond memories and congratulatory resolutions don’t pay medical bills.




Educators and students need a shower from the Rainy Day Fund


Some lawmakers in Austin brag with every other breath about being “conservative,” when in truth they are ideologues who simply want to blow up state government and let local property owners clean up their mess with higher school, city and county taxes.

Other legislators really do have a strong sense of fiscal responsibility, a true conservative outlook that recognizes they not only are stewards of everyone’s tax dollars but also are responsible for investments in education and other services to insure Texas’ future.

An early test of the differences between these two political genres is beginning to play out at the state Capitol over a $12 billion (b as in boy) pile of money called the Economic Stabilization Fund. More commonly known as the Rainy Day Fund, it is the state’s savings account, and it has enough money to boost funding for public schools and other critical needs and preserve a cushion for the future.

Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, the new chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, is a fiscal conservative who wants to make government work. To that end, he is considering using part of the Rainy Day Fund to avoid unacceptable cuts in education and other needed services.

That could help the House pay for a $1.5 billion increase in education spending that Speaker Joe Straus has proposed to spark overdue changes in the school finance system. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Senate, meanwhile, have proposed a new state budget that would barely – maybe – cover enrollment growth in the public schools and do nothing to give educators and students the additional resources they need.

Patrick doesn’t want to talk about the Rainy Day Fund, even though the state comproller’s office has told budget-writers that the Legislature can spend part of the fund and preserve, perhaps even enhance, the state’s credit rating.

To ideologues such as Patrick, the Rainy Day Fund is a platform for right-wing bragging rights, a fat idol to be worshipped, not a nestegg to spend on important public needs. The fatter the idol gets, the more Patrick and his allies brag about shrinking government and saving taxpayers’ money. But they are not saving anybody anything.

They are hoarding $12 billion that taxpayers already have paid, while transferring a larger share of the burden for schools, etc., to local property owners. Remember this the next time Patrick pretends to sympathize with property taxpayers.