W.Va. lawmakers begin 4th special session of '09

AP News
Posted: Nov 18, 2009 11:20 AM

A group representing hundreds of West Virginia police officers sees the value in the special session legislation that aims to help ailing municipal pensions, one of its officials said Tuesday.

But the state's Fraternal Order of Police also has concerns with Huntington's plans to switch its newest officers to a new pension program once _ and if _ the bill becomes law, Vice President Joe Crawford said.

Police and fire pension plans across the state suffer from funding shortfalls. That city, West Virginia's second-largest, has one of the worst. A key item in the special session that began Tuesday, the pending bill would allow municipalities to close such plans to new hires, freezing those unfunded liabilities.

Huntington is the only municipality that intends to enroll current employees _ seven officers hired since July _ in a new state-administered plan that the bill would create, Crawford said.

"We all realize something has to be done," Crawford said. "We got everybody on the same page, and there were concessions made by all sides."

Crawford ultimately expects his group to support the legislation, which cleared committees in both the House and Senate during the session's opening day.

Dubbed the "Huntington Plan" because of that city's pursuit of relief, the pension bill is among about a dozen items that Gov. Joe Manchin included on the session call. Lawmakers hope to tackle the agenda amid their three-day series of interim study meetings, which end Thursday.

Manchin's agenda also includes a resolution honoring U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd. The nine-term Democrat becomes history's longest-serving member of Congress on Wednesday. Having served six years in the U.S. House, Byrd set the endurance record for the Senate in 2006.

Other items would limit the annual change to the state gas tax, help cities issue stimulus-related development bonds, and tweak rules for accounting for retirement benefits promised to public workers. Various measures would also boost funding to a Medicaid waiver program for seniors, the Division of Forestry and the State Road Fund, among other areas.

The pension restructuring measure does not include any state spending. Advocates of aiding the cities have previously eyed hiking or rerouting taxes on insurance policy premiums. Such provisions have helped kill earlier bills. Rural lawmakers balk at the state spending. Supporters of volunteer fire departments have jockeyed for that revenue as well.

The absence of taxpayer dollars helped the House Pensions and Retirement Committee unanimously advance the measure without major changes Tuesday.

"We really have to account for every dollar right now in these bad fiscal times," said Chairwoman Sharon Spencer, D-Kanawha. "I expect it will come out clean and come off the floor and head to the Senate."

The finance committees of each chamber expect to take up their versions of the bill Wednesday, with much of the rest of the agenda heading to committees as well.