Garfield County Retired Educators are holding a series of meetings this summer to plan for Oklahoma's 2006 legislative session. Nancy Jewell, of Enid, and Irene Stone, of Waukomis, are co-chairwomen of the committee planning the meetings.

"These meetings are being held to educate our members about issues which are going to be brought up either by our state organization or by legislators in the 2006 session," Stone said. "Our members must understand how critical these issues are to us and to future retirees."

To kick off the series, 50 members attended a meeting July 11 at the Public Library of Enid and Garfield County to hear Harold Sare, legislative chairman of Oklahoma Retired Teachers Association. Sare spoke about the issues facing education retirees, including the need for periodic cost-of-living adjustments and increased health insurance premium support.

According to Sare, many older retirees receive a monthly pension benefit of $800 or less, and some retirees are paying as much as 57 percent of their pension for health insurance.

Sare said low funding of the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System provides the Legislature with an excuse to refuse to grant cost-of-living adjustments or provide more help with insurance premiums.

Sare recommended GCRE members contact their local legislators and talk to them about the need to strengthen retirement funding. He said ORTS' current funding level of 42 percent makes it one of the three lowest-funded retirement systems in the country.

He said most of the states in Oklahoma's region have systems that are funded 80 to 85 percent.

"We need to remind legislators that the reason OTRS is so poorly funded is that the state has not funded the system as it should have," said Brenda Faust, GCRE spokeswoman. "OTRS was well funded until the 1980s, when the state diverted money that was supposed to go into OTRS and used that money for other purposes."

Faust said the money never was repaid, and the Legislature has not appropriated any extra money to OTRS. Faust said OTRS currently gets 3.75 percent of income, use and sales taxes as the state's portion of OTRS funding.

"Because of the income tax cut passed in the last session, OTRS will lose $40 million over the next four years, and the amount will increase after that as the tax cuts are phased in, which will further weaken OTRS," she said.

Sare also recommended members ask local legislators to oppose a move that will be made in the 2006 session to change OTRS from a defined benefits system to a defined contribution system. The difference would require active educators to put part of their salary into private investment accounts they would live on when they retire.

He said the system is similar to the plan President Bush has advocated for Social Security. The problem, according to Sare, is an educator would need to make $75,000 to $80,000 a year in order to have enough o invest in a comfortable retirement.

The average teacher's salary is around $34,000, he said.

Another meeting is set for 9:30 p.m. Aug. 4 in the Great Plains room of the library. Chuck Hopkins, OREA president, will be the speaker. On Aug. 5, a breakfast meeting at Wee Too restaurant will be held at 8 a.m. with state Rep. Mike Jackson, R-Enid. Meetings with other legislators are being organized.

Jewell said GCRE members are encouraged to attend the meetings.

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