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George Hopkins on the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System (Exec Q&A)

3 min read

George Hopkins has headed the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System since December 2008.

Bio: George Hopkins
Education: Hopkins graduated from Ouachita High School in Donaldson (Hot Spring County) in 1976, from Henderson State University in 1981 and from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Law in 1987.

Background: Hopkins served in the Arkansas State Senate for 14 years, from 1987 through 2000, and practiced law in Malvern from 1987 through 2008 before joining ATRS as executive director.

Q: What are your primary responsibilities?

A: I carry out the ATRS Board’s policies and directives. My duties include ensuring the prudent investment of the $11.8 billion ATRS trust fund, properly paying benefits of $64 million per month to 36,000 members and beneficiaries, paying special benefits and refunds of about $70 million annually, obtaining employer contributions of $400 million annually, receiving member contributions of $140 million annually, crediting the 86,000 active members with accurate service and salaries, hearing all member appeals, monitoring the actuarial status of ATRS, ensuring compliance with extensive IRS regulations, providing information and input to the General Assembly and Gov. Mike Beebe, and making recommendations to the ATRS Board on proposals that ensure fairness and the financial strength of ATRS.

Q: In light of actuarial projections, is ATRS looking to alter its 6 percent mandatory contribution for members?

A: No. I do not plan to recommend that the ATRS Board increase the member contribution. The actuarial status of ATRS can be addressed by cost-cutting measures and other proposals to the ATRS Board later this year. Also, I will not recommend any cut in benefits for current retirees.

Q: Are you seeing teachers retire later than planned because of financial insecurity caused by the economic downturn?

A: ATRS has seen a trend of delayed retirement in recent years. I believe it is due to the current economic uncertainty and the cost of health insurance for retirees. Retirements in the last four years were below expectations.

Q: How can government pension funds survive to pay out the benefits promised to workers decades ago?

A: Maintaining the contribution rates at reasonable levels is the answer. ATRS’ required contribution has historically been fully funded by Arkansas.  Due to that, ATRS is in relatively good shape despite the global financial crisis. Most of the focus on survivability has been on plans that were typically underfunded. ATRS has and will cut costs and tighten up benefit provisions to remain strong for the long term.

Q: Should governments eliminate pension funds and let public workers invest their own money in 401(k)s like the rest of corporate America?

A: A defined benefit plan for educators should be maintained. The cost of employer contributions to ATRS is a relatively small percentage of the cost of public education.  ATRS promotes the 3 Rs of teacher retirement, the Recruitment, Retention and Reward of career educators. A reliable monthly benefit, survivor protection and disability benefits are important tools to recruit the best educators for Arkansas to compete in a global economy.

Q: What attracted you to this business?

A: Teaching is a noble profession. I owe so very much to the teachers in my life. I served as a member and as Senate co-chair of the Public Retirement Committee. Quality retirement benefits are needed to provide quality teachers. I love numbers, problem solving and challenges. ATRS has a lot of all three. At ATRS I can try to repay the debt I owe to teachers past, current and future while doing something I enjoy.

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