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Citizens largely unaware of special election

September 25, 1997

By DON AINES

Staff Writer, Martinsburg

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A random and unscientific sampling of 10 registered voters in Berkeley County revealed that six of them were unaware of Saturday's statewide special election that could change West Virginia's constitution.

The polls open at 6:30 a.m. Saturday and will remain open until 7:30 p.m. Poll workers, however, might be advised to bring a good book to occupy their time.

Ten percent was the prediction for voter turnout by County Clerk John Small on Wednesday.

"Everybody's got something to do on Saturday - golfing or shopping," he said.

If approved, the referendum would change the constitution to allow public funds to be invested in common stocks and other equities. Right now, those funds can only be invested in bonds and supporters say that hurts the state financially, particularly its four major employee pension funds.

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"If they start investing in stocks, let's just hope they have a good stockbroker," commented Catherine Darlington of Inwood. She said she did not know there was a special election Saturday.

Henry and Renee Zimrin of Hedgesville were walking up to the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Library Wednesday when they were asked about the election. They too, had no idea there was an election just three days away.

"I'm dead set against it. Stocks are even more risky," said Renee.

If approved, the state could invest up to 20 percent of its portfolio in stocks the first year, 40 percent in the second year and up to 60 percent after that.

"I think I might, if I remember," Jordan Parker-Johnston of Martinsburg said when asked if he planned to vote. As he read through a newspaper in the library, he said he recalled reading something about an election.

"I know a lot of businesses and groups are behind it," Parker-Johnston noted. He said he would probably vote in favor of the measure because stocks have performed well in recent years.

His biggest concern was who would be in charge of investing the money. He recalled a county in California a few years ago that lost more than $1 billion on bad investments.

George Morris of Martinsburg was sitting in the lobby of the courthouse surrounded by suitcase-sized boxes that fold out into voting booths for the county's 55 precincts. "I'll probably vote no, but I might change my mind," he said.

Legislators, business and labor groups have all come out in support of the amendment in hopes of keeping the pension funds solvent and avoiding a tax increase. Yes On One is the bipartisan committee formed to drum up support for the measure.

Spokesman John Brown said last month that 13 percent of state tax revenues are going into shoring up the funds. This year the state is spending $315 million to prop up the funds, a figure that Brown said could increase by $50 million or more next year.

The pensions are underfunded by a total of about $4 billion, with the teachers' pension fund accounting for about $2.7 billion of that, according to Brown.

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