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Greg Abbott, Lupe Valdez urged by Rep. Canales to declare health insurance funding for retired teachers an emergency item for Texas Legislature

Featured, from left: Adriana Rendón, Vice President of Operations, Boys & Girls Clubs of Edinburg RGV; Ashley Martínez, Director of Operations, Boys & Girls Club of Weslaco; Mary López, CEO, Boys and Girls Club of Weslaco; Dalinda González-Alcantar, CEO, Boys and Girls Club of McAllen; Alfredo Mata, Jr., CEO, Boys and Girls Club of Pharr; Fay Beard, Director of Development, Southwest Region, Boys and Girls Club of America; Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; Precinct 2 County Commissioner Eduardo “Eddie” Cantú; and Jesse Vela, Member, Board of Trustees, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District. In 2017, Canales was coauthor of House Bill 13, which created a matching grant program to support community-based mental health programs to help out individuals experiencing mental illness in the region. area. On Thursday, July 19, 2018, these leaders joined the House District 40 lawmaker for the announcement that the Boys & Girls Club in Pharr had secured $1 million from this program to start services this year in Pharr, Edinburg, and Weslaco. “Mental health continues to be an important issue to me and I will continue working with our local judges and District Attorney to ensure we’re doing our part,” Canales said.

Photograph By ALEX RÍOS

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Greg Abbott, Lupe Valdez urged by Rep. Canales to declare health insurance funding for retired teachers an emergency item for Texas Legislature

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Legislativemedia@aol.com

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, the Republican nominee for reelection to the state’s highest office, and his challenger, former Dallas County Sheriff and Democrat Lupe Valdez, are being urged to declare health insurance funding for retired teachers an emergency item for the Texas Legislature when it returns to work in January 2019, Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, has announced.

“My local teachers, who are on a fixed income, are now paying hundreds of dollars more a month (sometimes more) for healthcare services and essential medications. These Texas teachers, who have dedicated their lives to public service, have increasingly had to make a choice whether to pay their mortgage, buy groceries, or pay for their potentially life-saving medications,” Canales wrote to Abbott and Valdez on Wednesday, July 18, 2018.

“We must ask ourselves, if we don’t support our teachers, what does that mean about the Texas Legislature’s support for students and the overall Texas education system?” the House District 40 lawmaker asked both of them.

The South Texas legislator wants whomever is elected governor in the November 2018 statewide elections to use their authority to speed-up legislative action that will protect the health insurance program, known as TRS-Care, for more than 270,000 retired educators and their dependents.

TRS-Care is the health insurance program provided by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS), the state agency responsible for running teachers’ retirement pensions.

The Texas Constitution prohibits the House and Senate from passing legislation during the first 60 days of a regular legislative session unless either chamber suspends the rule by a vote of four-fifths of its membership, or if the legislation is an appropriation or other matter declared by the governor to be an emergency.

“Your constitutional ability to declare emergency items could allow the legislature to more quickly address this crisis. The executive and legislative branch must work together to ensure that additional state funding is provided to TRS so that we can give Texas teachers what we promised them,” Canales stated. “I look forward to beginning the dialogue with you, and the possibility of working together to create a Texas education system where we recognize that great schools start with supporting our great Texas teachers.”

According to the Teacher Retirement System of Texas:

TRS-Care was created in 1986. It was originally designed to be a placeholder health insurance program for retirees. However, as the program grew and more retirees paid into it, TRS-Care became a reliable, quality health care program for teachers and other Texas educators.

During the 85th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature in 2017, TRS-Care faced a $1.1 billion budget shortfall. If nothing had been done by the Legislature to address this issue, retirees’ premiums would have skyrocketed (possibly tripling), and the program could have closed within two years, leaving many without a quality health care option. 

The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature ultimately filled half of the shortfall but also increased the teachers’ premiums and co-pays to fill the gap.

With rising health care costs, TRS-Care expenses have outgrown its income. TRS-Care is primarily funded by retired teachers, but it also receives funding from active educators, school districts and the state. The state’s contribution level is equal to 1 percent of active educator payroll. Health care costs are rising at a disproportionate rate as compared to teacher salaries. Thus, TRS-Care will continue to see budget shortfalls under its current system unless the state increases its contribution.

The TRS-Care funding system must be re-worked to satisfy its modern needs.

Active and retired teachers and public school employees, and their families, urged by Canales to “turn out in record numbers” in November 2018 state elections

With the state’s highest political offices of governor and lieutenant governor headlining the ballot box in the statewide November 2018 election, Canales renewed his call for on active and retired teachers and public school employees, along with their families, to “turn out in record numbers.”

“There are almost 355,000 classroom teachers in our state and another 270,000 retired teachers and retired public school employees and their dependents in our state. These are very significant numbers,” Canales said, citing the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Teacher Retirement System for those figures.

“Whoever is elected governor, lieutenant governor and to the Texas Legislature this November will hold the fate of public education in general, and the financial well-being of public school teachers and employees, active and retired, specifically,” he added, emphasizing, “They must turn out in record numbers in the statewide election next fall to protect themselves and the quality of our public schools.”

He recalled that during the 2014 statewide election, about 4.7 million votes were cast in the races for governor and lieutenant governor.

“This year, in 2018, the estimated number of classroom teachers, and retired teachers and their dependents on their health insurance coverage, is more than 600,000 voters, and that number doesn’t include the spouses and other voting-age family members of active teachers,” Canales reflected. “Any way you figure it, we are taking about a million voters who definitely have a lot to gain or lose financially when the Texas Legislature, led by the governor and lieutenant governor, returns to work next January.”

At the local level, Canales recommended that area educators and school employees, both active and retired, reach out to their colleagues, family and friends in other parts of the state to have them vote for state legislators who publicly support improvements in state funding for teacher salaries, pensions, health insurance, and other financial benefits.

“Simply put, there is power in numbers, but if you don’t show up on election day, what is most important to you and to your family will simply be ignored in the Texas Legislature and in the Governor’s Mansion,” he said.

Canales’ support for public education earns him TSTA honor

On Wednesday, April 28, 2018, in the First National Bank Ballroom in Mercedes, Canales, the House District 40 leader, was the only Rio Grande Valley member of the Texas Legislature who received the prestigious “Friend of Education” award by the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) – Region 6.

“The ‘TSTA Friend of Education’ honorees are individuals who have been highly engaged in advancing and promoting the interests of public schools and the students of this great state,” said René Zamora, President of the Edinburg TSTA chapter. “Rep. Canales has been a great proponent of bills and supporter of new legislation which will help the public school system of Texas and have the most positive impact to continue to provide the best quality educational programs for all students. We are proud to recognize Rep. Canales as a very true ‘Friend of Education’”.

The “Friend of Education” award is bestowed upon a person who has made a significant contribution to public education in Texas.

Honorees must be an elected or appointed official at the state level in Texas; this includes state legislators and other statewide officials, teachers, school board members, etc.

In addition to Canales, also honored by TSTA leaders were Mercedes ISD educator Adriana González, San Benito CISD Board Trustee Member Orlando López, Harlingen CISD Board Trustee George McShan, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD Board Trustee Víctor Pérez, Donna ISD Board Trustee Alicia B. Reyna, and U.S. Congressman Filemón Vela, Jr., D-Brownsville.

“I am greatly humbled to receive this award from TSTA, an organization that I hold in such a high regard, and I am honored to be included with such an impressive group of leaders who also were bestowed this high recognition,” Canales added.

During his legislative career, Canales has emphasized public education in the measures that he has introduced and passed, and has demonstrated a strong voting record in favor of public schools, colleges and universities. He will begin his fourth two-year term when the Texas Legislature returns to work for its five-month regular session, which starts in early January 2019.

In recent years, he has focused on helping come up with ways to help retired teachers and retired public school employees, who are struggling with drastic cuts in their health insurance benefits.

“Since the beginning of this year, Texas retired teachers have seen unmanageable increases on their costs to access healthcare services and prescription drugs. If we don’t support our teachers, what does that mean about the Texas Legislature’s support for students and the overall Texas education system?” he asked.

In late March 2018, Canales became one of a handful of incumbent and potential state lawmakers who called on Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, to call a special session of the Texas Legislature to address the issue of health insurance for more than a quarter-million retired Texans and their dependents struggling with higher monthly premiums and less coverage through the Teacher Retirement System’s TRS-Care.

“My retired local teachers and retired public school employees, who are on a fixed income, are now paying hundreds of dollars more a month (sometimes more) for healthcare services and essential medications,” Canales stated in a letter addressed to the governor. “These Texas teachers and school employees, who have dedicated their lives to service, increasingly have to make the choice to pay their mortgage, buy groceries, or pay for their potentially life-saving medications.”

A session is the period during which the Texas Legislature meets.

The regular session convenes every odd-numbered year, and may last no more than 140 days. The next regular session of the Texas Legislature begins in mid-January 2019.

A called session, commonly referred to as a special session, is so designated because it must be called by the governor. A called or special session may last no more than 30 days, but consecutive special sessions may be called by the governor.

In his letter to Abbott, dated Thursday, March 29, 2018, Canales recalled how last year, the stakes were high for TRS-Care, which was on the edge of disaster for the huge number of Texans who had been promised by politicians that the state government would take care of them in exchange for their public service.

“At the beginning of the 2017 Texas Legislative session, there were widespread fears that the Texas Teacher Retirement System’s TRS-Care, which insured around 270,000 retired teachers and retired public school employees and their dependents, was about to collapse,” the House District 40 lawmaker reminded the governor. “The Texas House led efforts during the regular session to fix the ailing system but the majority of the Senate was reluctant to support our educators.”

In late May 2017, Canales and his fellow colleagues in the House had offered a $500 million increase to help fund TRS-Care, with that amount coming from the Texas Economic Stabilization Fund, also known as the Texas Rainy Day Fund, which is estimated to reach $12 billion by 2019 if left untouched, according to the Texas Tribune.

The Texas Rainy Day Fund, which is largely fed by taxes on oil and gas production, has been at the center of debates this legislative session over whether to tap it to help stave off budget cuts, the Texas Tribune noted.

However, the Senate had offered $350 million from the state, but wanted local school districts statewide to provide an additional $134 million.

Canales commended Abbott for seeing “the need for action” and consequently adding TRS-Care to the July 2017 special session call. “Yet, the solution that resulted from that special session was just another temporary and partial fix.”

Canales emphasized to the governor “it is clear to me that we cannot wait for the next regular legislative session, which begins in January of 2019, to create a permanent fix for TRS-Care. I humbly request that you call a special session of the Texas Legislature” to address the needs of such a powerful constituency.

In closing, the state representative asked the governor, “If we don’t support our teachers, what does that mean about the Texas Legislature’s support for students and the overall Texas education system? I look forward to continuing the dialogue with your office, and the possibility of working together to create a Texas education system where we recognize that great schools start with supporting our great Texas teachers.”

According to the Texas Retired Teachers Association (TRTA), the following actions are taking place that will affect active and retired teachers, and public school employees, when state lawmakers begin their 86th Regular Session in early January 2019.

The Texas Legislature recently released its interim charges for the Texas Senate and House of Representatives. The charges include issues pertaining to the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) pension fund and the TRS-Care retiree health insurance program. The charges will direct committees to study certain facets relating TRS, and the reports generated by the studies will help inform and guide policymakers in 2019.

TRTA is focused on advancing an agenda of protecting the defined benefit plan, securing a pension increase for retirees, and advancing new and innovative funding solutions to address the TRS-Care shortfalls.

House Committee on Appropriations 

The House Committee on Appropriations will study the long-term sustainability of the TRS-Care program. The committee will also consider options for funding this health care program, especially as it pertains to contributions being based on active employee payroll rather than the cost of health care. The committee will monitor how the bills passed by the Texas Legislature relating to TRS-Care are implemented during the interim.

Two bills were passed relating to TRS-Care, H.B. 3976 and H.B. 30, and TRS has already used these bills as the blueprint for how it funds TRS-Care and organizes its participants’ benefits.

House Committee on Pensions 

The House Committee on Pensions is of the utmost importance in determining the future health and funding for the TRS pension fund. The committee has been charged with reviewing the state’s oversight of pension systems. Additionally, the committee will be responsible for making recommendations to enhance the state’s oversight of local pension systems. The committee will evaluate the investment oversight of a number of state-run retirement systems, including TRS. It will identify the best practices made by the agency and make recommendations to strengthen the state’s oversight of the system. The health incentive programs within the group benefit programs at TRS will be reviewed and evaluated by the committee as well. The committee will be responsible for making recommendations on how to reduce expenditures through TRS-Care. Similar to the House Committee on Appropriations, the Pensions Committee will review the implementation of bills passed relating to TRS.

House Public Education Committee 

The House Public Education Committee will review the charter school system in Texas. It will consider the differences in charter and district contributions to TRS on behalf of their employees and make appropriate recommendations to support the retirement benefits of all public school teachers.

Senate Finance 

The Senate Finance committee will monitor health care costs throughout the state agencies, including TRS. The committee will attempt to improve and reduce health costs within TRS-Care.

Senate Health and Human Services 

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee will compare alternative payment models with providers in Medicare managed care, which includes TRS. The goal of these models will be to identify ways in which TRS and the Employee Retirement System (ERS) can work together.

Senate State Affairs 

The Senate State Affairs Committee will examine and assess the TRS pension fund. It will review the different types of retirement plans, the actuarial assumptions used by TRS, TRS’s investment practices and performance and the adequacy of financial disclosures. The committee will make recommendations to ensure public pension system retirees’ benefits are preserved and protected. The committee is also charged with monitoring the implementation of legislative action on TRS from the past session.
Specifically, the Senate will monitor the following: the implementation of House Bill 3976, relating to the administration of and benefits payable under the Texas Public School Retired Employees Group Benefits Act.

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Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, represents House District 40 in Hidalgo County, which includes portions or all of Edinburg, Elsa, Faysville, La Blanca, Linn, Lópezville, McAllen, Pharr and Weslaco. He may be reached at his House District Office in Edinburg at (956) 383-0860 or at the Capitol at (512) 463-0426.

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