(AUSTIN) — Monday, the Senate approved part of a package that would increase benefits paid to the state’s retired educators, one that differs somewhat from the version approved by the Senate in March. Retired teachers haven’t seen a cost of living adjustment since 2013, and that was only for teachers who retired prior to 2004. Under HJR 2, and its companion SB 10, currently before the House, teachers would get a one-time benefit increase this year that would be based on retiree age and term of service. Teachers who retired prior to 2004 would see a six percent increase in benefits, those who retired before 2021 would get four percent, and two percent would go to those who retired in the last two years. That bill also includes a one-time, 13th annuity bonus check of $5,000 for retirees aged 70 or older, like payments made to beneficiaries in the last two sessions. SB 10 also contains a mechanism for regular benefit adjustments, up to two percent, whenever the pension trust fund’s performance exceeds a seven percent average growth over the previous five years. That provision wouldn’t kick in until FY 2029.

PHOTO: Houston Senator Joan Huffman would ask the voters to approve the funds to pay for retired educators first cost of living adjustment since 2013.

Houston Senator Joan Huffman would ask the voters to approve the funds to pay for retired educators first cost of living adjustment since 2013.

HJR 2, sponsored in the Senate by SB 10 author and Houston Senator Joan Huffman, would ask voters in November to approve the $3.323 billion in funds needed to pay for the modifications to the Teacher Retirement System. Huffman said she think’s it’s a fair bet that Texans will support the measure. “I’m confident the voters, the citizens of Texas, will want to give this benefit to our very valued retired teachers,” said Huffman. “A good use of the surplus,” Lt. Governor Dan Patrick put in from the dais. The House and Senate will still have to sign off on each other’s versions of SB 10 and HJR 2, or resolve any differences in a conference committee.

Entering the last week of session, the Senate Education Committee added a school choice proposal onto a bill that would increase pay for current teachers after the senate’s major choice bill, SB 8, failed to reach the House floor. That bill would’ve created education savings accounts, and would have allowed parents to apply for up to $8,000 in state funds to help pay for education related costs like private school tuition and tutoring. The House dramatically scaled back the size and scope of the measure, prompting Governor Greg Abbott, who has made school choice one of his top priorities for the session, to threaten to veto the bill as it was changed in the House. With that threat hanging over the bill, the committee chair for the House education committee never held a vote on the measure. Abbott has indicated he would call a special session if the legislature doesn’t pass a significant school choice bill by the time session ends on May 29th.

The provisions added onto HB 100 differ somewhat from the bill passed by the Senate. ESAs would still cap out at $8,000 and it would require that two-thirds of the general state revenue set aside for the program to go to students attending public schools with C or lower ratings, should applications exceed the entire set aside amount. The bill also changes the way that the state would deliver pay raises to teachers. Instead of the flat pay raises passed by the Senate, the House plan increases the basic allotment and would require schools to spend more on teacher compensation than they do now.

The amended bill will likely face a steep climb in the House. Representatives issued a strong rebuke to the concept when they overwhelmingly voted in favor of a budget amendment barring the use of public dollars for private school tuition. Perhaps an even stronger rebuke came later, when representatives refused to approve a motion to allow a committee to consider the Senate school choice bill early, something that is usually granted pro forma by the House. Should the House once again balk at a school choice proposal, lawmakers will hold their breaths to see if Governor Abbott makes good on his threat to call legislators back to Austin to continue to work on the issue in special session.