CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The chairman of the Senate Military Committee said West Virginia should change how it provides pension credits to service members who are retiring from state jobs.
Chairman Erik Wells, D-Kanawha and a member of the Navy Reserve, said the state's current approach is inconsistent and results in litigation.
Wells said the state needs to fix what it's doing before veterans file a class action lawsuit against it.
"The state (retirement board) has done a very good job of denying people (pension) credit and some of those people are turning to circuit court and circuit court is siding with them that they deserve the credit," Wells said.
The comments come after Maj. Gen. Allen Tackett, who retired in 2011 as the longest-serving leader of the West Virginia National Guard, sued the state last week.
Tackett said the state Consolidated Public Retirement Board is "cheating" Guard members - including himself - out of pension benefits he believes they deserve.
State law allows service members to receive extra pension benefits because of their "active duty" military service. But Tackett said members of the National Guard are unfairly being denied credit for time they spend training during times of war. He sued the state in Kanawha County Circuit Court. The case has been assigned to Judge Carrie Webster.
Tackett said he stands to earn about $9,000 more a year if he prevails in court. Be he said he is bringing the lawsuit to help other Guard members.
Wells said Tackett's case and others are going to become a significant issue for the state and retiring veterans.
"This is going to be a major issue that is going to have a huge impact on the state's budget," Well said in an interview late last week. "And we have got to get this fixed because people are suing and getting circuit court to side with them on a case-by-case to provide them with a credit that they deserve and it's not going to take long - and Tackett's case is a good one - where you're going to have the state have to provide up to five years of credit for folks and we don't know how much that is going to cost."
There seem to be a few issues for retiring public employees who were service members.
The Legislature's Joint Committee on Government and Finance is expected this summer to study the military service credit to "promote consistency and fairness to the state's veterans while maintaining the financial solvency of the state's retirement systems," according to a Senate resolution requesting the study.
The resolution said the military service credit is not consistent among the state retirement plans. There are different plans for most public employees, State Police, judges and teachers.
The retirement board told Tackett in September that members of the Army Reserves get credit for training but that members of the National Guard do not.
The National Guard serves both the federal and state governments and can be called up by a state's governor. It can also be deployed overseas. The Army Reserve is solely a federal entity.
The two operate under different sections of federal code. Army Reserve always operates under Title 10, and National Guard is usually operating under Title 32, though the Guard operates under Title 10 when it is called to war, Tackett said.
Both members of the Guard and the Reserve get state pension credit if they were active during state-recognized armed conflicts.
But only Reserve members get credit for the training they did for those wars. Tackett said Reserve members and Guard members train side-by-side and for the same wars. He said it is unfair Reserve members get pension credits and Guard members do not.
Jeffrey Fleck, retirement board executive director, said state law requires a person receiving pension credit to be on "active duty."