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How to get $10 billion for roads

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I have figured out how to finance completion of U.S. 35 from the Buffalo Bridge northwest to the Ohio River, which remains one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the state.

My plan does not involve slapping a toll of $2 each way on cars or raising taxes or sending someone to the Senate until he is 120 and has the seniority needed to knock down road money.

The $187 million price could be paid in a manner that would improve the state's credit rating.

This plan is so good and so fair to taxpayers that it will never pass in West Virginia.

I would scale back pension benefits to something taxpayers can afford.

That means the elimination of retiree health benefits and making state employees and the like wait until they are 65 to qualify for Medicare, just as most people in the private sector must wait.

My plan makes too much sense to pass. State employees, teachers, county workers and municipal employees -- about 100,000 people -- would be up in arms.

But the state right now faces an unfunded liability of $17 billion to pay pensions and retiree health benefits to state workers, many of whom can retire and collect their pensions at age 55 -- it is earlier for uniformed personnel.

These unfunded liabilities affect the state's credit rating, which Standard and Poor's now sets at AA, just one step below the federal government's rating of AA-plus.

West Virginia was prudent with its finances for nearly 20 years as it shored up its credit rating. But the state cannot achieve financial nirvana until it sheds that $17 billion albatross in unfunded liabilities for pension and other post-employment benefits.

Legislators have valiantly tried to protect public pensions because public employees are where the votes are in the Democratic primary, and thanks to gerrymandering, the Democratic primary is the only one that matters in most of the state.

The time has come to trim employee benefits. West Virginians cannot afford to pay pensions and health benefits to 55-year-olds, some of whom move on to other jobs. Let them retire, but make them wait for a pension until they are actually retired.

I have thought about the need to cut benefits for some time, but it took the retirement of a lieutenant at 44 from the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department to show me just how screwed up our system is.

The deputy did nothing wrong. He did nothing immoral. He played by the rules that our Legislature wrote. Presumably, he won't start collecting his pension benefits for another six years.

But at that point, since he passed the 20-year mark in law enforcement, he can collect a full pension.

Yet he is not retiring. He is changing jobs. He is in his prime in law enforcement. A private security company hired him.

In the private sector, a man changing jobs after 22 years might be vested in a pension plan, if one existed, and could start collecting benefits when he turned 62 -- maybe later. It depends on the plan.

Government needs to follow suit, and it should make no apology to its employees.

Nothing personal, but a system that allows people to start collecting a pension at 50 while they continue to work is expensive, and taxpayers cannot afford such extravagant benefits.

This is a problem throughout the United States. One estimate holds that the states have $3 trillion worth of unfunded liabilities in their pension plans.

That is $3 trillion not being used to build highways, modernize schools or even hire more government workers.

At a minimum, we must stop providing health insurance for retirees, especially the ones who retire before they are eligible for Medicare.

That would eliminate $10 billion in unfunded liability right there. At $10 million a mile, that $10 billion would pay for building 1,000 miles of roads in West Virginia.

Beginning with U.S. 35 northwest from the Buffalo Bridge.

Surber may be reached at donsurber@dailymail.com. His blog is at http://blogs.dailymail.com/donsurber.


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