Rescue Imperiled Pension Programs

Imagine everyone who lives in Wheeling suddenly being told their incomes are being cut off. Imagine them being old enough that they had few prospects of replacing that loss.

Now you have some idea of the disaster facing families throughout our state and in other coal mining regions.

Slightly more than 27,000 people live in Wheeling, according to the Census Bureau. That happens to be the number of retired West Virginians who rely on pensions from their former employers in the mining industry.

They and about 60,000 people in other states are facing imminent disaster because the United Mine Workers union pension fund is on the brink of bankruptcy. Without intervention from some source, it will be only a matter of time until the program has to stop sending checks to retirees.

Unfortunately, the situation is much more complex than merely an issue of whether to assist retired miners. Several other union pension funds also are nearing insolvency. Helping the miners while doing nothing for those other retirees would be both wrong and politically difficult.

Fortunately, there is bipartisan agreement in Congress that something needs to be done. To that end, a Joint Select Committee on the Solvency of Multi-Employer Pension Plans has been established to craft a federal government approach to the problem.

Among the panel’s 16 members are Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

Committee members face a daunting task. An idea of its magnitude can be gained by considering that the U.S. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which normally steps in to rescue insolvent retirement systems, could be wrecked itself if called upon to help with funding for the imperiled programs. Hundreds of thousands of retirees ranging from teamsters to ironworkers are involved.

A formula for helping them simply must be found and adopted. Too many people, including the 27,000 retired miners in West Virgina, will have no hope if the committee does not find a way out for them.