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Rich Stonestreet: Building self-sufficiency for retirees

At about $1,300 a month, the average Social Security retirement benefit is not even close to enough for a comfortable retirement in most areas of our state.

Yet, that is what about 250,000 West Virginians face because they cannot save for retirement at work through payroll deduction, the easiest and most successful way to save.

As a result, older West Virginians are deeply concerned about their ability to have a comfortable retirement. A recent AARP poll of West Virginians age 45 and older found that 86 percent wished that they had more saved.

As the West Virginia Legislature enters the final week of its 2014 regular session, the West Virginia Senate is considering House Bill 4375, which would establish a West Virginia Voluntary Employee Retirement Accounts program (WV VERA).

WV VERA would not be a government program. It would be a public-private partnership that uses private sector companies to manage and invest savings under the supervision of the state Treasurer's office.

That means new private sector jobs. The structure would be similar to West Virginia's existing Smart 529 college savings program.

Small businesses that do not offer any other pension or retirement savings plan would be eligible to use this retirement account. And of course, WV VERA would be completely voluntary for both employers and employees.

West Virginia small businesses make up 96 percent of all employers, employing more than  53 percent of our citizens. Small businesses that do have retirement savings plans pay much higher fees — often twice as high — than larger employers pay for the same product.

WV VERA would offer small businesses a simple, low-cost alternative. It would not expose the state to either risk or liability.

Opponents of House Bill 4375 — primarily the financial services industry — claim that WV VERA faces many insurmountable federal regulations that make it impossible to succeed.

While there are some federal approvals and requirements that could be needed before WV VERA could go into operation, all federal requirements would have to be met before the program could open.

The expensive plans operated by opponents to this program have all faced the same federal requirements and have successfully found ways to comply with them.

There is no reason to believe that in the case of WV VERA, the state Treasurer's office and its private sector providers would be any less successful in complying with federal law.

Low-income retirees will need state services financed by state taxes for health care, housing, senior centers and a host of other services. As our state ages and the baby boomers retire, this demand will only grow.

For West Virginia workers lacking access to affordable retirement savings options, WV VERA provides a savings option to allow people to provide for themselves, and a simple, low-cost alternative to taxpayer-funded government services.

Without WV VERA, our state faces an inevitable rising demand for taxpayer-funded state services as hundreds of thousands of our West Virginians retire with little more than their Social Security benefits.

It would be far better to allow our citizens to provide for themselves by saving for retirement through WV VERA. Doing nothing will only mean higher taxes for our kids and grandkids.

Stonestreet of Charleston is an AARP volunteer and the organization's state president.


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