State rep. continues push for teacher health care as session opens

McALLEN — As the 86th Texas Legislative Session begins today, state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, hopes his second attempt at getting Gov. Gregg Abbott to consider teacher health care as an emergency item pays off soon.

Canales sent a third letter to the governor weeks ahead of the session, in which he asked him to declare health care for current and retired teachers an emergency item.

“Every year brings some combination of higher premiums and lower benefits for retired and active school employees,” Canales wrote in the letter. “So that Texas teachers – having dedicated their lives to public service – increasingly have to choose whether to pay their mortgage, buy groceries, or pay for potentially life-saving medications.”

In his first letter, Canales requested a special session of the legislature to be set immediately to address the health insurance issues, he said, but the governor strategically refused the request.

The second letter requested additional funding as an Emergency Item in order to pass legislation within the first 60 days of the session. And the third letter was a nudge regarding the request as the session begins.

Without the Emergency Item designation, the House and Senate cannot pass it as they are barred from passing any legislation within the first 60 days of the session.

The Teacher Retirement System is estimated to hit a budget shortfall of $238 million if premiums were kept stable, he said, but teachers cannot afford increases in healthcare.

This session could be the prime time to do so as the Texas Rainy Day Fund has a record high of $12.5 billion, Canales said.

The solution, as offered by Canales and others at the House of Representatives during the 85th legislative session, was to use $500 million out of this fund to help fund the TRS, but the Senate offered $350 million asking the school districts to fund the rest.

“It is shameful that we can sit here and not think that this is an emergency,” he said. “These are calls that I get on a weekly basis, ‘What do we do? How do we solve this? I can’t pay for my rent and my copay.’ There are nightmare stories where copays are $2,000 or $3,000.”

The governor has been open to meeting and discussing these issues with his office, Canales said, but currently there is no indication of him agreeing to the designation nor a timeframe on when he will make a decision.

Canales said there is a good chance many other democrats and even some republican representatives will agree about the magnitude of the issue.

But he said they must also remain cautious that the solution doesn’t come attached to reducing funding to the other leg of the Teacher Retirement Fund, which is pensions.

“Texas has one of the soundest and strongest retirement pension funds,” Canales said. “It is an enormous piggy bank that can be robbed and nobody will be held accountable. So leave TRS alone when it comes to pensions because its sound.”

Other than addressing a cost of living increase in the pension, this part of the funding should not be touched, he said.

In the meantime, Canales said the constant communication with the governor’s office is seen as a positive. But his office will continue pressing not only Abbott’s office but that of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen to try to get a head start on the issue.

“Every day that you can shave off the suffering and the problem, is a victory,” Canales said. “We can’t do anything, literally, for 60 days, but we will not stop calling to make this an emergency item… I do believe that many of the democrats and republicans alike do believe this is a very important and a huge issue.”