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PENSIONS NOT OUT OF THE WOODS YET

Retirees in particular and workers in general can rest easier, knowing that their pensions are safer now. So can the federal agency that insures private pensions - and the taxpayers who ultimately foot the bill when such pensions fail.

But those pensions are still not as secure as they should be.The partial rescue was accomplished this week when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the power of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. to order distressed companies to reassume responsibility for their pension debts after the firms regain financial health or negotiate new benefit plans with their workers.

The high court's ruling overturns lower court decisions that had made it too easy for failing companies to rid themselves permanently of their pension obligations, forcing taxpayers to pick up the tab.

Despite this welcome development, the PBGC is still in deep trouble. Though the agency is running a deficit of more than $1.5 billion, it still must mail checks to retirees from nearly 1,500 companies. That deficit could easily swell to $8 billion with the failure of a few more big companies. Literally dozens of major firms have underfunded pension plans.

A few days ago, this page urged Congress to pass a law requiring private firms to keep their pension programs fully funded instead of letting some of them fall into arrears by huge amounts of money. Likewise, we also suggested that private firms be prohibited from diverting pension fund money to other purposes.

Those suggestions still make sense. Though the Supreme Court has banished one cloud over the pensions of some 50 million Americans, plenty of other clouds still loom.