CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It took only one day to pass the Senate, but Senate Education Chairman Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, noted Wednesday that the plan for paying down the state's massive liability for future health insurance costs for retired state and public school employees has been in the works for years.
"This is a bill that has been worked on by this body for a number of years," he said of legislation passed 32-0 Wednesday to pay down the OPEB liability (SB469). Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, and Sen. Ronald Miller, D-Greenbrier, were absent.
Under the bill, which is also expected to quickly win passage in the House of Delegates, the state will direct $30 million a year of personal income tax collections to pay down the liability, currently projected to be $5.3 billion.
Earlier Wednesday, Public Employees Insurance Agency executive director Ted Cheatham told the House Pensions Committee that the funding stream should pay off the OPEB liability by 2036.
Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, said that with passage of the bill, West Virginia would be the first state to come up with a way to pay off the massive future debt for retiree health care.
"This is monumental," he said. "We are on the forefront of dealing with this massive liability in the country."
For Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, who has worked more than four years on a solution to the OPEB dilemma, the bill's passage was satisfying -- even though his name is not on the bill.
"This is very significant for the state of West Virginia," he said. "It shows the willingness of the governor and the Legislature to step forward and address the last really major remaining sin of the past."
With programs in place to pay down OPEB, as well as large liabilities for state and public school employees' pensions, and for the former state-run Workers' Compensation plan, millions of dollars that would have gone to deal with those deficits on a pay-as-you-go basis will be freed up for other uses, including economic development and infrastructure improvements, he said.
Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, shared McCabe's optimism.
"That money will be freed up to take care of the people who live in the state in the future," Kessler said.
McCabe said he thinks business will take notice that West Virginia is the first state to resolve its OPEB liability.