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Pension vote may affect W.Va. teacher recruiting

June 28, 2005

West Virginia's voters on Saturday rejected Gov. Joe Manchin's plan to bail out the state's underfunded pension plans by a majority of 54 to 46 percent.

The vote was a victory for Don Blankenship, chairman and CEO of the Massey Energy Co., who spearheaded an ad campaign to defeat the bond issue.

But it may not be a triumph for citizens, who now face the prospect of seeing increasing amounts of the state's general fund budget go into the pension funds every year.

Defaulting on the state's obligations to retired employees is not an option. A court-ordered settlement will take an escalating amount of money from the state's budget every year until 2034.

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Manchin said that by issuing bonds, the amount contributed to the pension funds would be capped at $350 million each year.

The Associated Press reported this week that without the bond issue, the payment will balloon to almost three-quarters of a billion dollars by 2034.

The AP report also noted that the teachers' pension system is in the worst shape of all the state agencies' plans and owes $3.50 in pledged benefits for every $1 it has on hand.

Given a choice between working for a system with a secure pension plan or one as shaky as West Virginia's, what will bright young educators do?

We believe that although they may love the profession and the children they teach, most will decide that pinning their retirement hopes on an underfunded system is just too much of a risk.

After the election, Manchin said he will not pursue the pension issue any further. We hope that this is a political tactic rather than a firm resolve on the governor's part.

West Virginia's future depends on creation of an educated work force, but the PROMISE scholarship program begun by the last administration won't mean much if there aren't enough teachers to staff the state's classroom.

As we have said previously, Blankenship and others who opposed this proposal have a responsibility to provide an alternative.

In his own press conference Saturday, he called for an end to all taxes on food and reduced taxes on gasoline. We await with great interest his plan for replacing the revenue these taxes bring in, and for solving the problem of the state's underfunded pension plans.

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