House bill to tinker with teacher pensions pared back after backlash

A plan to make changes in the pension system for Georgia teachers was pared back Tuesday after lawmakers were flooded with emails from educators and retirees.

Teacher and retiree groups started a campaign recently against legislation pushed by state House Retirement Chairman Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, that he said was aimed at making the giant pension plan for 400,000 teachers, University System of Georgia employees and retirees more financially stable.

“We’ve got to start doing something,” Benton told his committee.

But Benton said the flood of emails made it unlikely his original legislation — House Bill 109 — would pass, so he narrowed the scope of the measure.

Now, if approved by the General Assembly, new teachers in the future would not be able to count sick leave toward their pension, something that can add $1,000 or more a year to their pension when they retire. In addition, cost-of-living pension increases — which are 3% annually — would be tacked on once a year. Currently, retirees get 1.5% twice a year. Changing it to a once-a-year increase would save the system $17 million annually, Benton said.

What happened to Benton’s bill has been a seemingly yearly occurrence at the General Assembly: Lawmakers say they need to make moves to ensure the long-term financial stability of the $83 billion pension system, but major changes they suggest draw strong reaction from politically powerful, active and organized teacher and retiree groups.

Teachers are having a good 2020 session so far. Gov. Brian Kemp recommended a $2,000 pay raise for teachers, something lawmakers will have to decide whether the state can afford amid budget cuts. Kemp has also called for reduced student testing, something teacher groups have supported.

And Tuesday, Benton’s committee passed a separate bill that would allow retired educators to teach in a school full time and continue receiving their pension. Currently, they can only work part time and continue receiving benefits. Only teachers in certain areas, such as math and science or areas designated by the Department of Education as those in need, could come back full time and continue getting their pension.

The average teacher pension is about $37,000 a year.

Lawmakers have talked about tinkering with the pension system for years as similar retirement programs across the country became severely underfunded.

Comparably, Georgia’s Teacher Retirement System has not been in bad shape financially, but lawmakers had to pour in extra money in recent years to make it more stable.

This year, the system was in such good shape — buoyed by strong investment returns — that it cut back on what employers had to pay in. That meant the state’s contribution to teacher pensions is going down by $190 million, which is about half of what the teacher pay raise would cost.

“We’re not blowing your money,” said Bill Sloan, the executive director of the Georgia Retired Educators Association and a member of the retirement system board. “The people who think TRS is in trouble … I don’t agree with that at all.”

The state and school district annual contribution to the system has topped $2 billion, and a state audit last year projected that could hit $4.4 billion by 2045 without any changes. Many of the changes originally proposed by Benton came from that audit.

Teacher groups have successfully beaten back attempts in recent years to make changes such as turning the pension system for new hires into a 401(k), a defined-contribution program that is more common in the private sector. In such programs, rather than getting a fixed or defined monthly payment when they retire, employees and employers contribute into an investment fund that workers can take with them if they switch jobs.

On Tuesday, some lawmakers, including Benton, were critical of the email barrage. “Most of them had no idea what was in the bill,” Benton said. “I deleted every one of them. For the most part, they hadn’t read the bill.”

Margaret Ciccarelli, a lobbyist for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state’s largest teacher group, said she and her staff met with Benton and made suggestions on his legislation.

“There has been a lot of confusion about this bill,” she said.

Another member of the House Retirement Committee, state Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, said he was happy to hear from retirees and teachers and questioned the need for Benton’s bill.

“Why are we doing this bill if we have money in the system?” he asked.

John Palmer, a Cobb County educator and spokesman for the teacher group TRAGIC, said, “I am glad Rep. Benton decided to make changes that reflected the strength and stability of one of the best-run pension plans in the country.”

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