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Teachers Seek End to Social Security Penalty

By Maria Recio, Star-Telegram Washington

March 25, 2004

When Peggy Buttner, assistant director of employee relations for the Fort Worth school district, retires, she knows that her decision to work in education after another career will be costly.

"My Social Security will be cut nearly in half," said Buttner. She earned enough Social Security credits in a 14-year career to receive $600 a month upon retirement, but now she will receive only $400 a month because she will also get a stipend from the Teacher Retirement System of Texas.

Texas teachers and other public employees are fighting mad that the Social Security system penalizes them by reducing their benefits when they retire -- and they want Congress to do something about it.

The problem is that Texas teachers' retirement system is separate from Social Security and that the federal government decided 20 years ago to impose penalties that essentially prevent "double dipping." The Social Security Administration reduces the retirement payment to a Texas teacher by about $300 a month even if the teacher was entitled to a larger payment.

"I'm trying to spread the gospel," Buttner said of her efforts to publicize the issue.

Educators in Texas and 10 other states with non-Social Security retirement plans are worried that midcareer professionals who are being encouraged to become teachers will refuse when they learn of the penalty. Workers who have held part-time jobs paying into Social Security as well as the Teacher Retirement System are also penalized.

In Texas in 2002, nearly 50,000 workers had their earned Social Security benefits cut, according to the Social Security Administration.

The issue has become hot in Congress, where Democrats are trying to force consideration of the Social Security Fairness Act.

Texas Democratic House members are trying to use a procedural device to bring the bill to the House floor for a vote, but Republicans want a go-slow approach because of the legislation's high price.

Fort Worth school trustees are so concerned that the penalty will decrease the district's pool of teachers that they are sending a letter supporting the bill to the president, the speaker of the House of Representatives, the president of the Senate and all members of the Texas congressional delegation.

The letter, approved March 9, says the penalty discourages people from choosing a career in education and causing many employees in the field to resign or retire prematurely.

Rep. Jim Turner, D-Crockett, is leading the effort to get 218 members to agree to consider the bill. So far, the petition has 125 signatures, all from Democrats.
Democratic Reps. Martin Frost of Arlington, Charlie Stenholm of Abilene, Chet Edwards of Waco, Nick Lampson of Beaumont, Max Sandlin of Marshall and Gene Green of Houston joined Turner last week to announce that Texas' 16 Democrats were starting the petition drive.

"America's teachers and other public employees should not be denied their full Social Security benefits," Turner said.

House Republicans have kept the bill in the Ways and Means Committee because the leadership is concerned about the cost of eliminating the penalty.
Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, a member of the Ways and Means Committee's Social Security subcommittee, wants the bill to go through the committee process.

"If you've earned a Social Security benefit, you should be entitled to your Social Security benefit," Brady said.

The bill also addresses another controversial penalty. Under present law, the Social Security Administration reduces or eliminates widows' and widowers' benefits if they are eligible for a pension from a federal, state or local job such as teaching that was not covered by Social Security.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, repealing the non-Social Security work penalty and the widow and widower benefit reduction would cost $55 billion over 10 years.

Congress recently closed a loophole that permitted Texas teachers to work for as little as a day in a job covered by Social Security and not have their spousal benefits reduced.

President Bush signed a bill March 2 that closes the loophole as of June 30 so teachers would have to work for at least five years in a Social Security-covered job to claim full spousal benefits.

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