Teacher pension changes sputter in Georgia legislature

A bill that would cut some retirement benefits for Georgia public school teachers is still alive, but just barely.

House Retirement Committee Chairman Tommy Benton said he’s not sure what will happen next with House Bill 109 after he asked committee members not to vote on it Tuesday. The Republican from Jefferson said he’s getting pressure from people “higher up” not to bring the bill forward, after it provoked sharp opposition in an election year.

Benton wants to change how cost-of-living increases are calculated to slightly decrease benefits over time and to limit how much sick leave retiring teachers can cash in to increase pensions.

Now, Georgia’s Teachers Retirement System gives a 1.5% cost-of-living increase twice a year. Benton wants to cut that to 3% once a year. Because the increases would no longer compound like bank interest, state auditors estimate the move would save $17 million of the projected $2.3 billion in state and local contributions next year.

The current measure would also limit how much sick leave someone could cash in upon retirement. A pension is boosted by an additional year of service when a teacher cashes in a year of sick leave.

Earlier this month, Bentondroppedmajor parts of the bill that could have required teachers to work longer, contribute more to their pensions and see sharply lower cost-of-living increases in retirement. But those moves have done little to soothe opponents.

“If the bill in fact saves $17 million ... itcuts retirement benefits by $17 million a year,” said Joe Fleming, a lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Educators, a 26,000-member teachers’ group that is a chapter of the National Education Association.

Several speakers on Tuesday called for continued study of pensions. Benton expressed openness to that, but said it would only be productive if teachers’ groupswere willing to favor changes that could reduce state contributions.

“You’ve got to get off the fence and say, ‘Yes, we’re for something,’” Benton said.

The system covers nearly 400,000 public school, college and university employees and retirees. Benton argues the system is unsustainable, noting that it’s fallen from fully funded in 2001 to about 80% funded now. The system had $75 billion in assets on June 30, 2018, but $22 billion in unfunded liabilities, money owed to participants.

“I truly am concerned about teacher retirement,” Benton said. “We can’t keep kicking the can down the road.”

Teachers groups are showing little sign of supporting any changes to the current system, however.

“We still have some fundamental questions about the need for this bill to move forward,” said Craig Harper, executive director of the 97,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators.