Retired teachers in Austin area count on Texas voters for first cost-of-living increase in years
Bob Gibbons swore he'd never be a substitute teacher. He actually had another post-retirement career in mind after working in Texas public schools for decades.
"I've always liked to bake bread, so my first choice was to bake bread at a bakery," he said.
But when Gibbons found out how early bakers have to wake up in the morning, that idea was toast. Still, he had to work because the monthly pension he gets from the state just doesn’t cover all of his family’s expenses.
“Substituting for nine months out of the year, kind of filled in the budget gaps that we had over that period of time,” he said.
Before retiring in 2014, Gibbons spent his 32-year career teaching in the Austin, Round Rock and Alief school districts. He taught Spanish and said he enjoyed watching students learn a language.
“Even on a bad day, I felt like I was doing something important everyday,” he said.
Gibbons is one of hundreds of thousands of retired school employees depending on Texas voters for the first cost-of-living adjustment to their pensions in years. Proposition 9, which appears on ballots statewide for the Nov. 7 election, will determine whether former teachers, school bus drivers and nurses receive higher monthly payments from the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, or TRS.
Becky Bennett spent all but one of the 25 years she was a teacher within the Bastrop Independent School District, south of Austin. One of her favorite things about teaching English and journalism was getting to know students.
“They were great. I loved working with them,” she said. “I was the yearbook and newspaper adviser — those two periods were the best part of my day.”
The 62-year-old retired in 2017 to take care of her mother.
“My financial adviser really wanted me to work another five years but I told him ‘no,’” she said.
Bennett did work part-time jobs for three years after retiring, though. And, while her monthly pension is not enough to get by on, she can currently afford to not work because she’s part of a dual-income household. But, she said, that’s not the case for all her friends who are retired educators.
“I have one real good friend who retired the same year I did," Bennett said, "and she’s driving Lyft now."
What is Proposition 9?
Prop 9 is one of 14 constitutional amendments on the ballot this fall.
A vote in favor of Prop 9 will increase TRS retirees' monthly payments (or annuities) by 2%, 4% or 6% based on when they retired. The average annuity is $2,174 per month.
According to the Texas Retired Teachers Association, 150,000 people who retired between Sept. 1, 2013, and Aug. 31, 2020, are eligible for the 2% increase. Another 195,000 retirees who left their schools between Sept. 1, 2001, and Aug. 31, 2013, would get a 4% increase. Some 75,000 others who retired on or before Aug. 31, 2001, would get a 6% increase.
And, if you’re wondering if approving Prop 9 will result in higher taxes — it won’t. The Texas Legislature has already set aside the $3.3 billion for the cost-of-living adjustment, also known as a COLA. Lawmakers just need voters’ approval to spend that money because it exceeds a constitutional spending cap.
Eli Melendrez with the Texas American Federation of Teachers said Prop 9 must pass for several reasons. First off, Texas does not regularly adjust retired educators’ pensions.
“Sixty percent of other states, so the majority of other states, have some sort of structure to provide an ongoing COLA," he said. “Texas doesn’t have that, so it’s completely ad hoc.”
Melendrez said another reason the COLA is important is because more than 90% of TRS retirees do not receive Social Security benefits. While most states contribute to a pension fund and Social Security, Texas does not. And, only a fraction of the state's more than 1,200 public school districts opt to participate in Social Security.
This is a fact, said Bennett, that many people, including her own husband, find hard to believe.
“Some people, I’ll tell them that, and they don’t believe me,” she said. “They just can’t believe the system would be that unfair to teachers.”
The last time TRS retirees got a cost-of-living adjustment was in 2013, but it applied only to those who retired before August 2004.
Retirement should be fun
Bennett and Gibbons are both set to receive a 2% increase to their annuity if voters approve Prop 9. But, Bennett pointed out, the cost of living has gone up 17% since she retired.
“People who’ve been retired longer should get more money. That’s fair. That makes perfect sense to me,” she said. “It should be more than 2% or 4%.”
Bennett said it is frustrating that former educators have had to wait so long for a cost-of-living adjustment.
"I don't know what legislators think that teachers should be doing with their time, just clipping coupons and counting pennies? I worked for 25 years in an 80-hour-a-week job," she said.
"I don't know what legislators think that teachers should be doing with their time, just clipping coupons and counting pennies? I worked for 25 years in an 80-hour-a-week job."Becky Bennett, retired teacher
But she is hopeful voters will overwhelmingly approve Prop 9 to send a message to lawmakers that supporting retired educators is important.
“Maybe they’ll get the message: ‘Don’t make us come begging. Treat us with some respect. Pay us what we’ve earned over a career in one of the most difficult jobs that there is,'” she said.
Bennett added that if Prop 9 fails, it may deter more people from entering education because there’s no guarantee their pension will keep up with inflation. Gibbons is concerned about that, too, and hopes there is a push for ongoing cost-of-living adjustments.
“I think we would have better and more consistent outcomes if more people would be involved in the budget process,” he said.
Melendrez said there is no organized opposition to Prop 9, but if it doesn't pass it will be catastrophic for retirees.
“For our educators who are already struggling to make ends meet, who are taking out payday loans, who are having to go back and teach in the classroom or take other jobs," he said, "it would be a huge setback for them."
Bennett added that she would like to enjoy her retirement.
"I want to go out and have a little fun. Do the kinds of things I didn't get to do while I was working," she said. "I think everybody wants to enjoy their retirement and not have to worry about paying bills all the time."
Early voting started Monday and runs through Friday, Nov. 3. Election Day is Nov. 7.