Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Governor's office announces administrative changes

By Allen Jones
TEXPERS Communications Manager

For those looking to lobby the Texas governor regarding the merits of defined benefits, there are a few new faces in his administration that public pension trustees and administrators may get to know as his staff transitions to the interim and prepares for the 2019 legislative session to take place.

Luis Saenz
Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott's office announced changes to his senior administration. Top among those changes is his new chief of staff, Luis Saenz, who previously served as the governor's appointments director. The principal and founder of Saenz Public Affairs, he has been involved in politics for more than 25 years, according to a biography provided by the governor's office.

Saenz is replacing Daniel Hodge, who is transitioning to the private sector, according to a news release issued by the governor's office Sept. 18.

"I have been privileged to have Daniel Hodge by my side dating back to my tenure as attorney general, bringing excellence to the organizations in which he has served," Abbott says. "I am truly grateful for his commitment and service to the State of Texas."

In the news release, Abbott also thanks his staff for their work to "enact conservative policies and preserve the freedom that Texans hold dear."

Saenz is among nine people announced to the governor's staff. Abbott says that while they have "big shoes to fill," he is confident his new team is up to the task.

"There are big ideas I plan to tackle in the upcoming session, and this team will be integral in spearheading those efforts," Abbott says. "We have already started working to ensure a smooth transition, and we will continue our work to keep Texas the beacon of opportunity."

Here is the complete list of the staff changes, from the news release, which took effect Oct. 1:

Luis Saenz will serve as Governor Abbott’s Chief of Staff. Saenz is currently the Principal and Founder of Saenz Public Affairs and has been actively involved in conservative politics at all levels of government for over 25 years. Saenz began his professional career at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. He previously served as Appointments Director for Governor Abbott and has also served in senior staff positions for Texas Governor Rick Perry, was Chief of Staff to former Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and has worked as an aide to former U.S. Senators Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison, and former Congressman Henry Bonilla. Saenz is a native of Carrizo Springs, TX, and he is a graduate of St. Mary’s University in San Antonio.

 Steven Albright will serve as Governor Abbott's Senior Advisor for State Operations. Albright previously served as the Governor's Budget Director. Prior to joining the Office of the Governor, he served eight years as Chief of Staff in the Texas Senate for Senator Robert Nichols, as well as Policy Director for the Texas Senate Committee on Transportation. Albright also served as a legislative director and Chief of Staff in the Texas House of Representatives. He has more than 16 years of experience in the legislative and executive branches of Texas government, including 22 regular and special legislative sessions focusing on natural resources, transportation and finance-related policy. Albright graduated from The University of Texas at Austin and received a Master’s in Public Administration from Texas State University.

 Reed Clay will serve as Governor Abbott’s Counselor and Chief Operating Officer. Clay currently serves as the Governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff. He has worked alongside Governor Abbott for 8 years, having previously worked at the Texas Attorney General’s office prior to transitioning to Governor Abbott’s gubernatorial administration in 2015. Clay has also served as a litigator for the U.S. Department of Justice. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University and masters and law degrees from Duke University.

 John Colyandro will serve as Governor Abbott’s Senior Advisor and Policy Director. Colyandro currently serves as the Executive Director of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, and the Executive Director of the Texas Conservative Coalition, a legislative caucus.  He previously served as Director of Policy and Research for Greg Abbott's campaign for Governor (2014), and as Director of Policy for Greg Abbott's campaign for Attorney General (2002).  He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin.

 Walter Fisher will serve as Governor Abbott’s Legislative Director. Fisher previously served as Texas State Senate Parliamentarian from 1996-2014. Prior to this, he served as Assistant Parliamentarian for the Texas House of Representatives. Most recently he was Senior Advisor to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick in 2015. Fisher is a graduate of the University of Texas.

 Sarah Hicks will serve as Governor Abbott’s Budget Director. Hicks is currently the Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of State Relations at the Texas A&M University System. She previously served as the Committee Director of the Texas Senate Committee on Finance and was a legislative aide to former State Senator Steve Ogden. Hicks holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Texas A&M University.

 Matt Hirsch will serve as Governor Abbott’s Deputy Chief of Staff and Communications Director. Hirsch currently serves as Governor Abbott’s Communications Director, a role he has held since the Governor announced his gubernatorial campaign in 2013. He has previously worked in various communications roles on Presidential, U.S. Senate and Governor campaigns. Hirsch is a graduate of the George Washington University.

 Peggy Venable will serve as Governor Abbott’s Appointments Director. Venable is currently serving as a Senior Visiting Fellow for the Texas Public Policy Foundation.  She has worked at the highest levels of government, having previously served in the administrations of Presidents Reagan and H.W. Bush. Upon coming back to Texas, Venable worked on public policy and grassroots campaigns, serving 20 years as the Texas director for Americans for Prosperity and its predecessor, Citizens for a Sound Economy. Venable is a graduate of Texas State University and has a master’s degree from Baylor University.

 Tommy Williams will serve as Governor Abbott’s Senior Advisor for Fiscal Affairs. Williams currently serves as the Vice-Chancellor for Federal and State Relations for the Texas A&M System. Prior to working in the TAMU System, Williams was a Texas State Representative from 1997-2003, and a Texas State Senator from 2003-2013. While in the Senate, he served as Chairman of three different committees: the Administration Committee, the Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, and the Finance Committee. During his legislative career, Williams was a respected leader on budget, education, transportation and tax issues. He graduated with a BBA in Accounting from Texas A&M.

Allen Jones
About the Author:Allen Jones is the communications manager for the Texas Association of Public Employee Retirement Systems. Email him at or call 713-622-8018.
Notes from the Oct. 13 PRB Actuarial Committee Meeting

TEXPERS Staff Report

Here are a few note from the the Actuarial Committee Meeting of the Pension Review Board held Oct. 13 in Austin:
  • Board chair Josh McGee asserted to Fort Worth officials that the legacy costs involved in maintaining a system while enrolling new employees in the Texas Municipal Retirement System were "accounting problems" and not real. Committee member and PRB board vice chair Keith Brainard disputed that, as did TEXPERS' board member David Stacy at the end of the meeting. Of course McGee has written in past that legacy costs are not concerns and therefore fail as a reason not to convert defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans.
  • McGee asked PRB staff to add a 10th actuarial review test – the 10-year actual investment return of systems versus their discount rate. Brainard disputed the value of this test and committee member Robert May supported Brainard. The matter is tabled for now. McGee positioned the additional metric as possibly offering a red flag, saying, roughly, that if a pension system hasn’t been successful meeting its discount rate in the last 10 years there’s little reason to believe that it will do so going forward. Discussions about market anomalies ensued.
  • The Texas legislature authorized PRB staff to spend $90,000 on creating an online pension dashboard, which staff has started. Stacy and Julie Higgins of the Houston Firefighters' Relief and Retirement Fund expressed concern regarding comparisons of systems that pay Social Security and those that don’t. Also, plan size was discussed.  

Union honors pension advocate for 

labor causes, minority rights support

By Allen Jones
TEXPERS Communications Manager

Longtime pension advocate Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, was recently recognized by an industry union for his work in support of labor causes and minority rights during the state’s recent legislative session.
Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas

During the 85th legislative session, Alonzo filed House Bill 285, seeking to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, a push he says would have improved the lives of 2.4 million Texans. In addition to pushing to create what he terms as a “livable wage,” Alonzo continued his defense of public pensions as vice-chairman of the House Pensions Committee. He also filed a bill designed to set up a state-administered retirement savings program for all private sector employees. Despite his effort to see House Bill 3601 passed, it didn’t make it out of the committee for a floor vote.
However, it is his fight to support hard-working Texans that motivated United Latinos of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union to recognize Alonzo with an award of gratitude. The organization promotes labor interests for Latino workers in the union, according to its website.

In a Sept. 26 newsletter to constituents, Alonzo’s office announced the representative’s receipt of the award.

“The United Commercial Food Workers is a union family that fights every day,” according to the newsletter. “Representative Alonzo fights every day, too. Not only as a state representative, nor as immediate past president of the National Labor Caucus, but as a proud union member.”

The group issued the award to Alonzo Sept. 14.

The representative is to take part in a panel discussion during Texans for Secure Retirement’s Fourth Annual Symposium Oct. 19 in Austin. Alonzo joins Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, and Houston City Controller Chris Brown in discussing the current state of pensions in politics. Vicki Truitt, a former state representative and owner of governmental relations firm VTruitt LLC, will moderate the panel discussion. The panel convenes at 10:15 a.m. and is part of a day of discussions focused on pensions and retirement issues. The symposium opens with welcoming remarks at 10 a.m. and closes with closing comments at 2:45 p.m. TEXPERS executive director Max Patterson serves as president of the nonprofit TSR, a secure retirement advocacy group. Patterson is scheduled to provide concluding remarks.

The symposium is open to TSR members and will be held at Dimensional Fund Advisors, 6300 Bee Cave Road in Austin. TSR members who would like to attend the symposium should notify Lena Terrell, TEXPERS’ membership manager, at 713-622-8018 or For more information, visit

To become a member of TSR, visit Applications are available for public employee groups and investment professionals.

Allen Jones
About the Author:
Allen Jones is the communications manager for the Texas Association of Public Employee Retirement Systems. Email him at or call 713-622-8018.

Research finds defined benefits play important role in 

teacher recruitment, retention, and productivity

By Allen Jones
TEXPERS Communications Manager

Robert Marrs is in his 40th year teaching with the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District and says he seriously considering retiring at the end of the current school year. The 61-year-old’s pension is his only form of retirement savings.

Robert Marrs
Leaving the profession he has spent four decades working in isn’t an easy decision for him to make, but he says having a secure retirement makes going less scary. After all, being a public educator allowed him to build up a secure nest egg.

“I will rely mainly on my pension for the remainder of my life,” he says. “If I retire this year, I will draw 92 percent of my top three salaries.”

Marrs is planning to meet with the Teachers Retirement System of Texas soon to start planning his departure from public education. He has already been giving the prospect of leaving his job some thought.

In Marrs' situation, he is divorced and his pension will impact no one but himself. However, because he will only be 62 by the time he retires, Marrs is sure he will want to obtain some sort of part-time job.

Several of his closest friends have already retired, and he often discusses with them what life will be like when he leaves the public education system behind. Their primary concern had to do with insurance, which Marrs is sure it will be his concern as well. All of his associates, however, feel good about their defined benefits, he says. He is already sure of that, too.

“Not having to worry if my portfolio is going to go crazy the wrong way kept me feeling safe over these years,” he says.

Another thing he is confident of is the career he chose for himself more than 40 years ago. Marrs received his Bachelor of Arts in Teaching from Sam Houston State University in 1978 and began teaching Texas history at Campbell Junior High School in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD that same year. During his time with the school district, he has been a seventh grade Texas history team leader and served as a social studies department chair, until that job converted to a content curriculum instructional specialist.

“I declined that role as it would take me out of the classroom, something I had no desire to do,” he says.

The educator says he has never considered leaving the teaching profession because he loves sharing the history of “the great state of Texas” and teaching is his passion. Knowing he will have a defined benefit retirement to live on made his decision to remain a teacher that much easier, Marrs says.

And staying in the teaching profession for four decades, he says, has improved his effectiveness as a teacher. His time in the classroom has taught him how to better deal with parents, many of whom he taught in earlier years, and helped him adopt a flexibility to deal with the annoyances and chaos that often comes in dealing with seventh graders.

Chairita Franklin, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD’s assistant superintendent of human resources, says defined benefits are significant to retaining high-performing teachers, such as Marrs. And having teachers like him, she adds, has a direct correlation to students receiving quality first-time instruction.

Her opinion mirrors that of a new research brief that indicates defined benefits play an important role in teacher recruitment, retention, and productivity. The research brief, “Revisiting the Three Rs of Teacher Retirement Systems: Recruitment, Retention and Retirement,” is published by the National Institute on Retirement Security and authored by Ilana Boivie, a senior policy analyst with the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.

“The reality we face is that the nation’s schools continue to struggle with a growing shortage of teachers and that teachers are paid on average as much as 60 percent less than similarly educated professionals across the globe,” says Diane Oakley, NIRS executive director in a news release announcing the research brief’s findings. “Pensions play an essential role in recruiting and retaining our best and most experienced teachers. It’s critical that states continue to leverage the magnetic effect of pensions to help students achieve at their highest potential.”

Public employees prefer pensions over 401(K)-type or defined contribution plans and that Americans strongly support teacher pensions to help address recruiting problems and the broad wage gap, according to the NIRS report. Also, the report finds:

•    The more retention among midcareer teachers, the more the average productivity within a school increases.
•    Teacher turnover doesn’t just impact a school district financially. It affects a school district’s productivity.
•    The availability of defined benefits is a tool to recruit high-quality teachers and keep them employed and productive longer compared with defined contribution savings plans that force educators to act as their own investment brokers.
•    According to data, in 2009, DB pensions helped to retain an additional 30,000 teachers throughout the United States. More tenured teachers produced more productive and efficient teachers, and that increased the overall quality of public education.
•    But, as DBs help keep teachers in classrooms, reducing the profession’s turnover rates, school districts save money. In 2009, districts nationwide saved between $131 million and $284 million in costs usually associated with teacher turnover.

The NIRS study also looked at state teacher attrition rates, the percentage of those who left the teaching profession in Texas during 2009. The state’s attrition rate that year is 7.3 percent, which is higher than the national average of 6.8 percent. The Alliance for Excellent Education provided the data. Turnover costs for Texas were between $100 million and $250 million.

Those numbers could have been a lot higher, if not for DBs, according to the NIRS report. Texas saved between $14 million and $30 million in teacher turnover costs. And if the state would have had a 401(k)-like DC plan, the attrition rate is projected to have been 8.2 percent. Instead, according to the NIRS report, DBs are estimated to have prevented 3,235 teachers from leaving the profession that year.

There are about 1.5 million members in the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. The number includes both active and retirees. The largest public retirement system in the state, members include teachers and non-classroom public educators such as bus drivers, administrators, and cafeteria workers, for example. The TRS has assets of about $146 billion.

Marrs, the Cypress-Fairbanks ISD teacher, is considering retirement right at the average age of TRS members who retire, 61 years old. All TRS members become vested in retirement benefits after five years of service.

Rebecca Merrill, TRS’ chief strategist, certainly sees some correlation between retirement benefits and longevity in public education. She says TRS data doesn’t indicate how many teachers leave the retirement system before being fully vested. However, upwards of half of all new system members drop out of the system before reaching the five-year vestment period. Once members reach vestment, though, the dropout rate dramatically declines to 10 to 20 percent.

“Maybe after five years in the classroom they are comfortable and committed or maybe they are vested and feel they better stick around,” she says. “But there is a correlation of those who have been here five years; they stick around.”

Allen Jones
About the Author:Allen Jones is the communications manager for the Texas Association of Public Employee Retirement Systems. Email him at or call 713-622-8018.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

6 Exciting Things to Look Forward to at TEXPERS' Annual Conference in South Padre Island!

TEXPERS 29th Annual Conference 
Casting the Net for Retirement Security
April 15-18, 2018
South Padre Island, TX

Mark your calendar now - you won't want to miss this!
Registration will open in November. 
Visit the conference webpage for updates.

What's new at the 2018 Annual Conference?
  • Monday and Tuesday sessions will be conducted at the South Padre Island Convention Center. Transportation provided. Free parking at hotels and the Convention Center for those that drive.
  • A wide variety of lodging choices and affordable rates will be available from four conference hotels.
  • The attire will be Jimmy Buffett casual - No ties allowed! Cool and comfortable will be required. Shorts and flip-flops encouraged!
  • Channel your inner Frankie and Annette at TEXPERS' first ever Beach Party!
  • The conference program will have lots of topics from which to choose. Some breakout sessions will be repeated (you asked and we listened!)
  • The Program is being designed to allow time for you to enjoy beautiful South Padre Island
Do you have a topic you would like to see us cover? Email

Watch this video and get excited 
about South Padre Island!

See you at the beach!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Start a Grassroots Effort at Your Fund

Education is key in creating pension advocacy

By Allen Jones
TEXPERS Communications Manager

Credit: iStock
America’s northern neighbor, Canada, has turned out to be a proving ground for public pension systems that are actively preparing plan participants to spread the importance of defined benefits. The systems can teach Texas funds a thing or two about grassroots advocacy building.

Ontario-based public pension plans are turning to their participants to convince the country’s corporate employers to keep DB plans, according to an article recently published in Pensions & Investments magazine. Systems are building grassroots networks by educating their plan participants about the value of their retirement plans and counting on the messages spreading to their friends and family and eventually to private companies.

The P&I article highlighted three public pension systems that have developed grassroots efforts. They include:
  •       The Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan recruits plan participants who are educated in the DB model to serve as ambassadors. The participants are then able to correct misleading views of DB retirement plans among their friends, relatives and colleagues in the private sector.
  •       The Ontario Public Service Employees Union Pension Plan established a “People for Pensions” program. The program explains the difference between DB benefits and other retirement plan models to the system’s plan participants so they will have the knowledge they need to discuss DB with people they know.
  •       The Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Pension Plan established a program called “Building Plan Champions.” P&I describes it as a “participant- and employer-education program.” Again, the goal is that those educated in the value of DB plans will have the knowledge to speak to others.
The Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Pension Plan, or CAAT, conducts annual surveys of its members. Those surveys show that plan participants want long-term retirement protection and are willing to pay up to 10 percent to get there, with a 10 percent match from their employer, says Derek Dobson, the system’s CEO and plan manager, in the P&I report.
“That would be enough to guarantee retirement security for them,” he told the magazine. “The Canadian culture is such that Canadians want DB plans. The question is, how to get them access.”
CAAT provides seminars, offers webinars, and has produced online videos to help educate its members about defined benefits. The goal isn’t to ensure plan participants understand their benefits and have the knowledge to talk about the value of their retirement plans when conversations arise. CAAT’s program goal is to educate 5,000 members and is 91 percent there, according to information CAAT provided TEXPERS.

CAAT members and employers are surveyed on their knowledge of DB plans, and those with a high level of knowledge are designated as “champions.”
“Early on, about 8 percent or 9 percent (of those surveyed) were designated as ‘champions,’ but after the seminars, we identified 35 percent as ‘champions,’” Dobson told P&I magazine. “Clearly, there’s a direct link that the more you understand a pension, the more value you place in it, and they can go out and defend their defined benefit plans.”
Offering the various learning opportunities is attracting plan participants. According to information from CAAT and shared with TEXPERS, the 90-minute seminars are often held on Saturdays and have attracted as many as 270 people. Plan members are spending lunch hours and breaks attending CAAT’s webinars, which run for 1 hour and 45 minutes. The pension system also produced nine videos that discuss some of the most common questions regarding defined benefits.

Grassroots efforts such as CAAT’s are bottom-up approaches to facilitating change, says Aabha Brown, a clinical assistant professor of social work at the University of Houston. She spoke to TEXPERS about the Canadian pension systems and how Texas funds can also engage their members to contextualize the value of defined benefits.

Effective grassroots programs, Brown says, have three key components: education, a story to tell, and a clear message.
“It is often hard to make a change if advocates don’t understand why resources are important in the first place,” she says.
Brown says the “grasstops,” or executives, often speak a different language than their “grassroots” plan members. Topics must be explained in a manner they understand and can articulate to their peers or other intended audience.

The education could come in the form of seminars, speaker luncheons, webinars, online videos, discussion groups, newsletters or emails to plan members. Once plan members are educated, there must be a story to tell. People connect with stories, Brown says.
“People often don’t connect to statistics,” she says. “Even though data may connect with an issue, people do not connect to the data. In the case of defined benefits, people enjoy retirement due to having a secure plan or those who do not have one don’t enjoy retirement.”
Those stories don’t always have to be about a threat to pensions. Although bad news does spread, so does good news.
“Consider how benefits are positively helping people,” Brown says.
Any story, though, must have a clear message.
“If a pension system wants to equip their people, they need to very clear in what they are wanting people to act on,” Brown says. “Often, organizations talk about how good a benefit is but they are not clear on what action they are seeking through their stories.”
Brown suggests that pension systems provide multiple ways for their plan participants to get involved. It may be encouraging people to talk to their friends and family about the value of defined benefits. It could be recruiting retirees to write letters to legislators. Maybe, it is to go door-to-door to hand out informational pamphlets. Others may be better at using the phone to advocate for defined benefits. Or, possibly solicit ambassadors to speak one-on-one to lawmakers or testify during legislative hearings.
“Having diversity of actions people can take is important,” Brown says. “Not everybody is wired to go speak to legislators or write a letter.”
She also suggests finding ways to acknowledge the efforts of advocates who are getting the word out and celebrate milestones achieved.
“If 100 members sign a petition or make a phone call, show appreciation and get the message out to other advocates,” she says. “It may motivate those on the sidelines to get involved.”
The big takeaway from CAAT and other Canadian pension plans: Texas public pension systems looking to start a grassroots movement must begin by properly cultivating their greatest assets – the members.

In Texas, The El Paso Firemen & Policemen’s Pension Fund is equipping its members to better understand DB plans by teaching them how to use their deferred compensation accounts to learn about investing. By showing them that deferred benefits are easier due to pooled risk and professional investment management, the members find out how relevant DB plans are, says Tyler Grossman, the fund’s executive director.
“They can see how long it takes to save and how much if they tried to do it on their own,” he says.
The program is part of a series of informational summits the system established this year to help educate its members on the value of DB plans. So far, the El Paso system has held two summits. It is hosting its third Nov. 28. Each summit has a five-member panel, including Grossman who talks about the plan’s Forward Deferred Retirement Option Plans, how members can create health funds with it and cost of living adjustments.
“Each panel member speaks on a subject,” he says. “The other topics are insurance, deferred compensation, taxes, and an attorney for estate planning. Each one expresses how important it is to preserve their DB and the importance of protecting it at all costs.”
Grossman hopes not only will his fund’s member become more knowledgeable of their retirement plans; they will talk up the plan among their friends and family, kick-starting a grassroots effort in the El Paso community.

Allen Jones
About the Author:
Allen Jones is the communications manager for the Texas Association of Public Employee Retirement Systems. Email him at or call 713-622-8018.

TLFFRA to host 2017 Local Firefighter Pension Conference

The 2017 Texas Local Fire Fighter Pension Conference is Sept. 30-Oct. 3 in The Woodlands.

Hosted by the Texas Local Firefighter Retirement Act, the event features vendors, networking, golfing, and educational opportunities. The conference will be held at The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel and Convention Center, 1601 Lake Robbins Dr., in The Woodlands.

Trustee member fees are $50. Add $25 to bring a spouse. The fee includes access to a golf tournament Oct. 1, skeet/sporting clay shoot Oct. 1, and dinner on Oct. 2. Click here to register.

A full agenda can be accessed here. Visit the TLFFRA website for additional information.