Larry Gonzales

A swelling Hispanic population will continue to affect public policy related to immigration and education in Texas according to speakers at the Texas Tribune Event Series.

The Texas Tribune hosted a bipartisan “conversation” with two state representatives Thursday morning as part of the Tribune Events Series. 

State Reps. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, and Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, discussed budget cuts and the voter redistricting of 2011, which was intentionally deemed discriminatory by a federal court. They debated whether or not demographic shifts affected those decisions. 

“The first time that we have a majority of public school kids who are African American or Hispanic and we took pretty dramatic steps last session,” Anchia said. “We cut 5.4 billion dollars from the public education budget. We hadn’t done that in the history of the State.” 

Gonzales denied seeing any racial factors that determined the cuts. He framed the problem as a byproduct of a struggling economy.

“[The cuts had] absolutely zero to do with changing demographics [and everything to do] with a very changing economy,” Gonzales said. “You saw re-adjustment of budgets at the county, state, and federal level. Everyone made a concerted effort to re-prioritize what [funds] we had. I don’t see any race component there at all.”

The representatives also discussed immigration reform and the State’s low percentage of civic participation. Anchia and Gonzales noted that Texas consistently ranks among the lowest states in terms of voter turnout. For the last presidential election, Texas was ranked 50th in the nation. 

Despite several points of contention between the two representatives,  Anchia and Gonzales agreed that the key to solving most of the state’s issues will be education. Both spoke anecdotally about the transformative and beneficial effects of education.  

Anchia and Gonzales agreed that budget cuts affecting education limit initiatives to better schooling in the state.

“The only reason I was able to move ahead is because I received scholarships for both undergrad and law school,” Anchia said. “If we continue to cut, cut, cut and raise tuition prices, we’re going to dismantle the very infrastructure that has helped generations of Texans move ahead. That’s been the access to the next station in life, to the middle class. We must keep that going.”

Retired Texas teachers may soon be seeing a boost in their financial benefits if two bills filed for the 2013 legislative session pass.

State Reps. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, and Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco, each filed bills earlier this month to increase financial benefits for those receiving pensions from the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, a group that has not seen an increase in its pensions since 2001.

The retirement system serves Texas public education employees including eligible employees at UT and is governed by the state legislature. It is the largest public retirement system in Texas in terms of membership and assets, with 1,316,566 participants and $101 billion in net assets as of Sept. 30, 2011, according to its website.

Gonzales’ bill would allow the state legislature to more easily provide supplemental payments to those retirees. Currently, the state legislature must request additional funding from the state’s general revenue to make such a payment, and the bill would allow them to do so without taking that step.

Bill Barnes, legislative coordinator for Texas Retired Teachers Association, said his organization supports Gonzales’ bill because it could be used to help supplement the buying power retirees have lost since 2001.

“That buying power has gone down by more than 30 percent,” Barnes said.

He said only one supplemental payment for the retirees has been approved by the state legislature in the last 10 years, and it was in 2005.

Barnes said the Texas Retired Teachers Association also endorses Martinez’s bill, which would provide a more consistent means of retirement funding for seniors. The bill would provide for a cost of living increase based on the percentage change in inflation reflected in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers, a number that has most recently been published by the United States Department of Labor.

Scott Jenkines, chief of staff for Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, said the bill is needed to give teachers increased stability in their pensions. 

“When they retire the vast majority of them do not get Social Security, so they rely on their teacher retirement,” Jenkines said. 

Social Security payments change each year in accordance with the index.

Jenkines said budgetary constraints within the legislature and a general anti-government attitude in Texas will be the biggest obstacles for the passage of Martinez’s and similar bills.

“It’s going to be tough. No denying it’s going to be tough,” Jenkines said.

He said he believes passing the bills is possible, and that it will be easier to tell where the legislature stands on the bills once the 2013 session begins. 

Printed on Thursday, November 29, 2012 as: Texas retired teacher benefits may rise