If you want to accomplish anything in Georgia politics, you had better remember one thing: — don’t mess around with public school teachers, particularly with their pensions.
Teachers are one of the state’s best educated groups of workers and they are also among the most politically active. The politician who does anything that makes teachers angry will surely pay the price at the ballot box.
Roy Barnes could attest to that. Eight years ago, when he was Georgia’s governor, he persuaded the Legislature to adopt an education reform measure that he promptly signed into law.
Barnes wanted to improve student performance by reducing class sizes and providing more resources for local school systems. Teachers were fine with that, but they were very unhappy over a provision that eliminated their right to a fair dismissal hearing. To add insult to injury, Barnes commented on several occasions that one of the problems with public schools was that "it’s too difficult to get rid of bad teachers."
That was the match that touched off the explosion. Angered at the lack of respect shown by the governor, educators decided to teach Barnes a lesson when he ran for reelection in 2002. Teachers around the state denounced the incumbent and supported his Republican challenger, Sonny Perdue. With the teachers’ help, Perdue defeated Barnes in one of the most astounding political upsets in the state’s history.
The lesson that Barnes learned at such a high price does not seem to have hit home with Perdue, however. Two months ago, Perdue tried to reduce pension benefits for teachers by proposing that the Teacher Retirement System eliminate their annual 3 percent increase in cost-of-living adjustments to pension benefits.
This increase has been granted automatically to retired teachers for nearly 40 years, but Perdue suggested giving the TRS board of trustees the flexibility to grant smaller increases because he said he wanted to protect the fiscal soundness of the $41 billion pension fund.
Just as they did six years ago with Barnes, teachers went ballistic over the Perdue proposal. They flooded the governor’s office and the office of the TRS board with an estimated 20,000 letters and e-mails protesting the policy change.
Teachers felt, not unreasonably, that they and their local school boards have been making hefty contributions to the pension fund for decades to make sure there would be enough money to pay for those of cost-of-living adjustments. If the governor would not listen to them, they made sure that the legislative leadership got the message about the perils of reducing pension benefits.
That message was received. By the time the TRS board met last week to vote on Perdue’s pension proposal, teachers had such key officials as Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, House Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter and House Minority Leader DuBose Porter on their side. Perdue may have been tone-deaf to the feelings of teachers, but lawmakers were not going to make that same mistake.
Realizing too late that he did not have the votes on the TRS board, Perdue attempted to have the proposal withdrawn. The board refused to allow the withdrawal and every member voted to reject Perdue’s proposal — even though more than half of the trustees are appointed by the governor.
Perdue’s political mistake probably won’t cost him the way it cost Barnes in 2002. He can’t run for governor again because he’s term-limited and he can’t step up to run for higher office because Johnny Isakson isn’t going to vacate his U.S. Senate seat in 2010.
One politician who does plan to run for something in 2010, Cagle, made sure that the teachers knew who had been in their corner. He issued a statement soon after the TRS vote saying he supported the decision and followed that up with a letter to each teacher who had written to him about the issue.
"I know many of you have waited weeks for this decision, and I want you to know that I reached out to the TRS Board to express my concern in taking the proposed actions to change this rule," Cagle wrote. "I am happy that they listened to my advice, as well as the voice of many teachers across our state."
Any politicians who want to keep getting elected to public office will make very sure that they listen to the voice of Georgia’s teachers. The events of last week made that crystal clear.
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .