Teachers, no less than legislators, deserve sound pensions

As many of you know, there likely will be an attack during next year’s legislative session on public employees’ pensions, including an effort to convert school teachers’ wellearned defined benefits pensions to riskier 401(k)type plans. This will be a continuation in Texas of the rightwing bashing of public service, and it will be promoted by legislators who have one of the sweetest public pension plans in the country.

Texas Tribune writer Ross Ramsey outlines the legislative pension plan in the article linked at the bottom of this post. Legislators have no control over their $600 per month salaries, which admittedly are low but still higher than some antigovernment, educationslashing lawmakers are worth. Legislative salaries are locked in the state constitution and can be raised only with voter approval. But legislators control their own pensions and have been pretty generous to themselves. Legislative pensions are computed on a formula based not on legislative salaries, but on state district judges’ salaries, which are set by the Legislature. Judges’ state pay is now $125,000 a year, and it can be raised whenever legislators see fit. (As in, whenever they decide to increase their retirement pay.)

Legislators who serve at least eight years can start collecting retirement benefits at age 60. Those who serve at least 12 years can start collecting at age 50. According to Ramsey’s calculations, a retired eightyear legislator would get $23,000 a year for life, beginning at age 60. A former lawmaker with 12 years’ service would get $34,500 a year, starting at age 50. These are lifetime defined benefits, the type of pension benefits that some legislators next year are expected to try to take away from teachers and other public workers.

Talmadge Heflin served 22 years in the Texas House before being retired by Houston voters. He qualified for a very generous defined benefit pension from the state $2,875 for every year he was in office, according to The Texas Tribune but now, as an official of the shrinkgovernment Texas Public Policy Foundation, he is among those promoting the elimination of defined benefits plans for public employees.

The Teacher Retirement System of Texas, at the Legislature’s request, is studying the pension issue. TRS is one of the soundest public pension systems in the country, and teachers and other school employee members contribute a large share of the premiums. Most teachers don’t qualify for Social Security and depend on their TRS benefits for much of their retirement nest eggs. It would be hypocritical for legislators to try to take that away from them. But, unfortunately, hypocrisy has never been a disqualification for public office.



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