Adopt Plan to Pay Down OPEB Debt

State Senate President Jeff Kessler has his priorities in order. Other senators and members of the West Virginia House of Delegates should follow his lead.

Kessler, D-Marshall, believes addressing the OPEB – for “other post-employment benefits” – problem ought to be high on legislators’ agenda during their regular session this month and in February.

OPEB is a familiar term to many state and local officials. It involves an unfunded liability of as much as $10 billion for benefits promised to retirees from the public sector, primarily teachers.

Though the burden officially is that of county boards of education and other government employers, the reality is the OPEB liability was created by past legislatures. That makes it the responsibility of the current Legislature to find a way to pay down the liability.

Late last year, the state Public Employees Insurance Agency took action to slow growth in the OPEB debt. By limiting the cost of benefits in the future, PEIA officials speculate the $10 billion liability may be cut in half.

That still leaves $5 billion for legislators to handle – a tall order even in a state where budget surpluses have been regular occurrences.

It will be a daunting task, but there are reasons to believe lawmakers can handle it. For example, the process of paying down unfunded liabilities in the past has moved more smoothly than expected. Money now used for some of them may be available within a few years to begin paying down the OPEB debt.

Clearly, Kessler is right. The OPEB challenge has been shoved onto a back burner for too long. Some plan to resolve it should be adopted this year.