Georgia’s $100 billion teacher pension system on a financial roll

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

When COVID-19 hit Georgia in March 2020, the stock market tanked and so did the assets of the pension system relied on by 400,000 public educators and retirees.

Buster Evans, executive director of the Teachers Retirement System, felt sick to his stomach as billions of dollars — on paper — were lost.

But a year-and-a-half later the TRS is currently valued at about $103 billion after seeing a 58% jump in value due to gains from stocks and other investments since that low point. At the end of June, it reported having 92% of the assets needed to pay future benefits, a big improvement from recent years.

The huge increase will probably have a political effect: It could dampen talk during the 2022 session of the General Assembly about making changes to the pension system, something some Republican lawmakers have pushed for in recent years.

“The topic of pension reform is never going to go away,” said Evans, a former longtime Georgia school superintendent.

But he added that in fiscal 2021, which ended June 30, TRS investments had their biggest year since 1986.

“When you have a year like that, it helps tremendously,” he said.

The state’s teacher pension system is closely watched because so many educators and retirees depend on the benefits. And because state lawmakers have raised concerns about its long-term financial viability.

The pensions — which go to k-12 public school, university and technical college educators — are funded through a combination of employee contributions, money from taxpayers and investments.

The system currently provides monthly benefits to about 140,000 retirees, with an average payment of $41,000 a year. It annually sends out more than $5 billion to retirees.

Recent good years in the market improved the financial stability of the system, making it far more solid than many teacher pensions across the country.

But only a few years earlier the state had hiked taxpayer payments into the system by about $600 million, eating up much of the new tax revenue that came in during 2017 and 2018. That led to increasing efforts by some lawmakers to consider changing the system so that new teachers received 401(k)s — savings and investment funds that the state would contribute a share — rather than pensions.

An audit in 2019 said that without any changes the state and local school district contributions into the plan would rise to $2.4 billion by 2025 and $4.4 billion by 2045. That would make contributing into the teacher pension system one of the state’s biggest expenses.

Some Republican lawmakers say many teachers don’t stay in the profession long enough to earn a pension, which is why a 401(k) — which they can take with them if they leave — makes more sense.

But teachers see the chance for educators to retire after 30 years or so and receive a good pension as one of the state’s best recruiting tools to attract young people into the profession and keep them in schools.

They have fought many of the changes legislators proposed for the TRS, including the 401(k) for new teachers. And they’ve beaten back those efforts year after year, sometimes flooding members of the House Retirement Committee with emails and calls.

While the end-of-the-year report said the TRS had 92% of the assets it needed to pay future benefits, the system uses five-year averages to smooth out projections so that a big year — such as fiscal 2021 — balances out a poor-performing year.

Using the five-year average, Evans said the funding ratio is a bit over 80%. But that’s still much better than in recent years and outpaces many similar pension systems in the country.

Stephen Owens, an education senior policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said the strong recent numbers make it unlikely there will be much of a push to change a pension program that is so strongly supported by educators.

“There are very few private pensions available,” he said. “The idea is, if we’re not going to pay civil servants like teachers on the front end, we should pay them on the back end.”

Georgia House Higher Education Chairman Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, has been among the leading proponents of making changes in the pension system to increase the program’s long-term viability.

But Martin, too, said the strong financial numbers, for now, make it less likely the General Assembly would try to change the pension system.

“When you see a number like that, people tend to go, ‘things must be fine,’ " he said. “I hope they are. Certainly when you get a year with good numbers, it’s going to make it less of an issue.”

Teacher pension fund’s growth

Below are the end-of-the-fiscal-year assets of the Teachers Retirement System:

Fiscal 2017: $71.4 billion

Fiscal 2018: $75.6 billion

Fiscal 2019: $78.9 billion

Fiscal 2020: $81.2 billion

Fiscal 2021: $102.2 billion

Source: Teachers Retirement System