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Voters get a head start

June 24, 2005|By CANDICE BOSLEY

MARTINSBURG, W.VA.

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

More than 19,000 voters in West Virginia cast early ballots this month for a special election asking whether the state may amend its constitution and allow for the sale of up to $5.5 billion in bonds to pay off debt for pension plans for state employees, including teachers.

The election is scheduled for Saturday, when polls will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

For the first time in state history, early voting was offered for a statewide special election. County courthouses were open to voters from June 3 to Wednesday, with 19,121 voters casting early ballots statewide, according to a news release from the Secretary of State's office.

Locally, 818 voters cast early ballots in Berkeley County; 484 voted early in Jefferson County and 181 voted early in Morgan County.

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If approved by voters, the bonds would be used to pay off debt associated with pension plans for state employees, including teachers, judges and state troopers.

Selling the bonds on Wall Street would ensure the state would pay a fixed rate of $350 million a year for the next 30 years, saving at least $1.5 billion in interest, Gov. Joe Manchin has said during two recent trips to Martinsburg touting the bond sale.

Without the bonds, the state's annual pension plan-related debt payments would increase annually, ballooning to $724 million in the year 2034, according to the governor's office.

Taxes would not be raised in relation to the bond sale, Manchin has promised.

Manchin also said that as a condition of the bond sale, no further debt associated with pension plans could be accrued until the existing debt is paid off over the next 30 years.

Several groups have endorsed the pension bond amendment, including the state Chamber of Commerce, the West Virginia Education Association and the AFL-CIO.

State Auditor Glen Gainer also has expressed support for the amendment.

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