Do revisions in retirement bill go far enough to appease teachers?

The sponsor of a controversial bill revamping the Teacher Retirement System of Georgia to enhance its solvency  outlined revisions today that address concerns of educators.

It was clear both the sponsor and members of the House Retirement Committee were hearing from teachers about House Bill 109.

“Last week when I presented this bill, I made the statement that I was open to any and all suggestions to make this bill better,” said state Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson. “I am not going to push to have it passed until I think it is ready...We did listen to the comments that were made last week.”

Among the changes Benton outlined at the House Retirement Committee meeting: The rate range for the mandatory contribution from educators was reduced from 6 to 10 percent of their pre-tax wage to 5 to 9 percent. Now, the range is 5-6 percent.

State leaders contend an increase in the employee burden is needed because the government contribution rate into the fund has more than doubled since 2012. What teachers, principals, college officials and others pay into the fund has remained the same.

As the AJC reported last month:

The more than $70 billion Teachers Retirement System, which pays benefits to about 127,000 former Georgia educators, has been a hot topic at the General Assembly in recent years because lawmakers have had to pour big money into the fund to keep it financially stable.

Some lawmakers have called the current pension system unsustainable. But legislators have been reluctant to give the idea of changing it anything more than lip service. Bills to consider altering the TRS -- which covers about 400,000 teachers, University System of Georgia employees and retired educators -- cause a political stir at the Capitol and quickly die.

The new proposed upper level of 9 percent still worried the Professional Association of Educators. Such an increase in employee contributions would wipe out a raise for some teachers, warned Craig Harper, PAGE executive director.

As an example, Harper pointed to the $3,000 raise that Gov. Kemp is giving teachers. If the the employee contribution rate was adjusted to 9 percent, the $3,000 would be nearly erased by that increased contribution obligation.

HB 109 would impact only new teachers, not current TRS members or retirees.

Benton also modified the provision that would have set the retirement age at 60. He is now calling for the rule of 85 eligibility under which educators can retire when their age plus the number of years they worked is 85 or greater.

Two points of contention that didn’t change in the revised bill presented today. Educators still cannot apply unused sick leave toward retirement credit.

And final compensation for an educator would still be calculated using the average of the highest five consecutive years, rather than the highest two. Educators would be limited to two raises in that time period to combat what Benton said were unfair spikes in salary awarded to favored employees to inflate their retirement package.

“In the past, people received a big bump to get their retirement on up,” he said. “This will keep local school boards from bumping up a retired superintendent or local principal. I am trying to get everyone what they deserve, but make sure they don’t get more than they deserve.”

Speakers, all of whom were educators, warned the committee that Georgia continues to lose teachers and slashing retirement benefits won’t help. Nor does it serve any purpose to give teachers raises that are then eaten up by hikes in their retirement contributions, they said.

The bill will again come before the committee next week.