Extra money for retired teachers in a “13th check” at center of Republican-Democrat shouting match

Jessica Lemmer went over a fraction problem with her third grade math class Jan. 14, 2018 at Edward Titche Elementary School in the Pleasant Grove area of Dallas.
Jessica Lemmer went over a fraction problem with her third grade math class Jan. 14, 2018 at Edward Titche Elementary School in the Pleasant Grove area of Dallas.

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Republican officials are sounding the alarm this week over the retired teachers in Texas who are unlikely to receive an extra payment of up to $2,400 from the state’s teacher retirement fund, with Democrats shutting down the special legislative session.

GOP lawmakers held at least three press conferences this week pointing the finger at Democrats who absconded to Washington, D.C., on Monday in an effort to block GOP voting bills.

“There really is no excuse for not being here for the people who have been here for them all of their lives and for their kids’ lives and for their constituents,” said Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, at a press conference Friday. “They deserve better than to have legislators who are skipping class because they don't like the assignment.”

But Democrats and teachers groups say Republicans were to blame for the bill failing in the regular legislative session, and are now using retired teachers as a political pawn in the battle playing out over the Democrats’ quorum break.

On Tuesday, the Senate passed Senate Bill 7, which would provide retired teachers, counselors and school staff a one-time payment, or “13th check,” of up to $2,400 through the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. It would apply to thousands of ex-educators who stopped working before the start of this year and reach the pockets of retirees no later than January 2022.

Those retirees say assigning blame is less important than getting those checks out the door.

“I want to see that ‘13th check’ in the hands of all the retirees who deserve this,” said Rita Runnels, a retired educator. “I want to see them come together and to do this.”

The Texas American Federation of Teachers said on Twitter that the “sudden” interest in passing a 13th check this special session “rings hollow.”

“Blaming House Democrats for ‘killing’ this bill by breaking quorum in order to preserve Texans' voting rights doesn't erase state leaders' longstanding inaction on the issue,” the organization said in a tweet.

Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, backed a 13th check bill for retired educators during the regular session, House Bill 3507. The bill, which had more than 100 bipartisan members signed on as coauthors, advanced out of a House committee but was never scheduled for a vote by the full chamber.

“It would have passed extensively if it had made it to the floor — so this whole idea that we are keeping teachers from getting a 13th paycheck is ridiculous,” Goodwin said. “We had an opportunity during session to make that happen.”

The calendars committee, which schedules bills for House votes, is chaired by a Republican.

Renae Eze, spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott, said in a statement Friday that the governor will work to support retired educators.

“Our retired teachers deserve better than Texas Democrats walking out on them and abandoning their duties to those who elected them,” Eze said.

Goodwin said it was frustrating that Republicans were weaponizing educators.

“I respect our teachers and retired teachers greatly,” Goodwin said. “I would never use them as a pawn in a game to make another group of people look bad.”

Republican lawmakers said Thursday that they didn’t pass Goodwin’s bill in the regular session because the state didn’t have the funds needed.

Enrique Marquez, chief of staff for House Speaker Dade Phelan, said in a statement that the economy has since improved following the pandemic and recession, citing a revised biennial revenue estimate from the comptroller’s office last week.

“The State has several billion dollars in available general revenue that was not available to use during the regular session,” Marquez said. “We want to commit a portion of it to a 13th check for retired teachers when House Democrats finally return to work.”

The comptroller's office also updated its revenue estimate during the last month of the regular session in May to say the state “assumes continued economic growth through the next biennium,” but noted this forecast does not account for appropriations made in session.

“Texas remains well-positioned to recover from the COVID outbreak and return to its norm of economic growth in excess of the national rate — if we haven’t already,” Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar said in a press release.

An additional bill filed during the special session, House Bill 120, would give retired teachers a cost-of-living-adjustment for their pension checks.

Tim Lee, executive director of the Texas Retired Teachers Association, said that while the 13th check is a short-term solution to assist retired educators, passing a bill to increase the cost of living adjustment — which accounts for inflation over time with pension checks — is a harder, more long-term goal.

“There’s obviously time on the clock and we hope they get this resolved, but there is doubt,” Lee said. “Doubt is really creeping into the minds of our retirees.”

Disclosure: Texas AFT, the Texas Retired Teachers Association and the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.