Tim Lee: Legislators should live by what they’ve done to us

I could hardly wait to interview Tim Lee, executive director of the Texas Retired Teachers Association, about the 85th Texas Legislature and this summer series. As I shared previously, I give the most sincere kudos to Tim and to TRTA for the fight they put up on our behalf. At the beginning of the session, retired teachers in Texas received a warning that our monthly premium for healthcare could rise from the roughly $295 those of us under age 65 pay now to more than $1200. During the session, the Texas Senate wanted to increase our deductible from the current $400 to $4000. Although our premiums will increase over the next four years to $370 per month, and as of January of 2018, our deductible will increase to $3000, without TRTA’s fight, it could have been even worse.

I had a chance to interview Tim by phone last week, and he had plenty to say. We began by talking about the vexatious comment people make that teachers and other public school employees are not state employees.

“Everyone wants to fixate on whether we’re state employees or not state employees,” Tim told me. He argued, as I have on numerous occasions, that the state controls the curriculum we teach, the minimum salary for teachers in the Texas public school system, the amount we are required/allowed to contribute to the Texas Teacher Retirement System, the amount they appropriate for TRS and the amount districts must appropriate for it, and more. If we aren’t state employees, Tim said, “then they spend a lot more time than they should on these employees.” Amen!

We then discussed the healthcare benefits legislators receive. If they retire at the age of 60 with only eight years as an elected official or at age 50 with 12 years, Texas taxpayers (including Texas public school employees) pay for them to receive the same healthcare benefits ERS (Employees Retirement System of Texas) retirees receive. If you’ve been following this series, you know what that means. That means they pay a $0 premium for their healthcare. They also have a $0 deductible. So they give eight to twelve years of their lives for these enviable healthcare benefits, while those of us who dedicated our careers to serving the children of our state in the public school system will pay a premium of almost $400 per month and endure a deductible of $3,000.

“We are giving good, quality treatment to our legislators,” Tim said, “and I’m not saying we shouldn’t, but they earn that in a far shorter period of time, and what do they offer some of the most important employees in our state?”

Tim reiterated that all other state employees receive far better health insurance while they’re working and pay full contributions to Social Security that are not compromised, despite their pensions, by the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) when they retire. Texas public school employees, on the other hand, receive far inferior health insurance while working and in retirement, and most of us do not have the option of paying into Social Security through the school districts where we work. Then, when we work outside of teaching and pay into Social Security through those jobs, the WEP prevents us from receiving our full Social Security benefits.

I told Tim the two questions I have been asked most throughout this series: 1) Why do the legislators get ERS benefits? and 2) Is there anything that can be done about what has happened to us?

Tim said countless retirees contacted him during the legislative session and since the regular session ended saying, “They should live by what they’ve done to us.” Tim wholeheartedly agrees. “Every public school employee is as important as anyone elected to the Texas Legislature,” he said.

Tim also asks a critical question: “Why does the State of Texas appropriate twice as much money for ERS than for TRS when ERS has half the number of retirees?”

About the second question I have repeatedly been asked, Tim responded, “Every legislative session provides a new opportunity to look at this, fresh and new, even in the special session.” (Governor Abbott has called a special session for July 18 that can last up to 30 days.)

What will it take? As I have said before, I firmly believe the following, if we have any hope of changing the inequities we were already living with and that the 85th Texas Legislature made even worse:

1. Every retired teacher who does not belong to TRTA needs to sign up immediately.

2. All of us need to get involved in TRTA at the local and state level.

3. All of us need to bombard our state representatives and senators with letters, phone calls, and visits to their local offices telling them we want what they get.

4. All of us need to make it clear that we will vote, and ask our family members, friends, and former students to do the same, accordingly.

5. We need to start now. The special session begins July 18. It may not be on Governor Abbott’s agenda right now, but it can be.

Chris Ardis retired in May of 2013 following a 29-year teaching career. She now helps companies with business communications and social media and works as a sales coordinator for Tony Roma’s and Macaroni Grill. Chris can be reached at cardis1022@aol.com.