Georgia House proposal preserves, but trims, pensions for future teachers

The Georgia Capitol Dome in downtown Atlanta.
The Georgia Capitol Dome in downtown Atlanta. Telegraph file photo

Future Georgia teachers may not get as valuable a retirement package as today’s teachers — though the state will save some money — if a bill in the Georgia House is successful.

The sponsor of the bill has an eye on the state Teachers Retirement System (TRS), and its growing share of the state budget. But in a state where some 40 percent of people leave K-12 teaching quickly, some retired educators and teachers’ groups are approaching the proposal with caution.

“If we don’t do something now, it’s going become more of a burden on the state and pretty soon it’s going get to the point where it’s not sustainable,” said state Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, speaking of TRS, the Georgia pension program that covers most K-12 teachers, as well as some university employees.

At a committee hearing this week, Benton said the point of his House Bill 109 is to do things that would help benefit the retirement plan, and ensure that educators still get benefits.

Georgia put about $2 billion in TRS in the year that ended in July, 2018. But the “employer share” of an employee’s salary that Georgia puts into TRS has grown and is more than double what it was about 10 years ago.

Benton’s proposal doesn’t cover anyone who is already teaching, or who is already a retiree. The ideas in the bill would only apply to people hired after July 1, 2019.

For those new folks, their pension would be based on a lower number than the law now states: the average of their last five years’ salary, not counting any more than two raises at in the last five years at work. Right now, pensions are based on the average of the employee’s last two years’ salary.

Educators could still retire after 30 years under the bill — but they couldn’t draw benefits until they’re 60. It also caps pension benefits at a maximum $200,000 per year — a sum that, for example, some college professors or superintendents of large school systems could achieve.

The bill also eliminates the opportunity for members to apply unused sick leave toward service credit. There are several other changes to retirement benefits in the bill, and it’s liable to get more edits.

Benton asked for constructive criticism and said nothing in the bill is written in stone.

Margaret Ciccarelli is the director of legislative affairs for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE), a group that counts more than 95,000 members statewide.

She said PAGE sees the bill as a good-faith effort and shares Benton’s goal of seeing TRS remain a defined-benefit plan. That is, a plan with set payouts, not a 401(k)-type plan with defined contributions but undefined payouts.

But Ciccarelli did say the organization is concerned with the idea of the state being able to mandate that new teachers pay as much as 10 percent of each paycheck into their retirement fund. She also said it would be good to see an estimate of exactly what these changes would mean to TRS’ bottom line.

“We need to have an idea what we’re saving,” Ciccarelli told the committee.

The Cobb County School District, the second-largest in the state by number of employees, depends on benefits to help recruit and retain teachers, said Gretchen Walton, from its compliance and legislative affairs department.

“Solving today’s budgetary issues with money from tomorrow’s education is a problem,” Walton told the committee.

“With this bill we are telling the educators of tomorrow: ‘You have to work longer, you have to fund more of your retirement, your retirement benefits will be lower, but you are the most important part of our state’s future.’”

The bill seems likely to at least get a committee vote. Benton is the chair of the House Retirement Committee, which is hearing the bill. He said the committee may hear about amendments to the bill as early as its next regularly scheduled meeting, Feb. 19.

If the bill moves through the House, it would still need to go to the state Senate, then to Gov. Brian Kemp.

Kemp has proposed $3,000 raises for all teachers, starting in July. In his State of the State speech earlier this year, he pointed to a 2016 state finding that 44 percent of Georgia teachers leave the profession within five years. He said that in order to retain teachers, the state must “remove heavy burdens” from the classroom and “keep teacher pay competitive.”

Short state fact sheet on House Bill 109

Legislative reporter Maggie Lee began covering the state Capitol in Atlanta for The Telegraph in 2011.