Raimondo Vetoes Firefighter Disability Pension Bill; Says It Would Hurt Cities And Towns' Finances

Sep 27, 2017

The governor speaking with reporters earlier this year.

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo has vetoed a bill making it easier for firefighters to get disability pensions, saying it would reverse fiscal progress made by the state's cities and towns.

The bill would create a presumption that any firefighter unable to do their work due to stroke or heart disease developed that condition as part of their work. That would enable firefighters to get tax-free disability pensions at two-thirds of their salary.

Supporters say that almost 40 states offer the heart ailment presumption to firefighters, and that the benefit is justified based on the dangerous aspects of their work. Lawmakers passed the measure during a special legislative session on September 19.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Frank Lombardi (D-Cranston), cleared both chambers by large margins. A companion House bill sponsored by Rep. Robert Craven (D-North Kingstown) did not get a vote in the Senate.

In her veto message, Raimondo said the bill would cause “an extraordinary departure from current practice.” She noted how General Treasurer Seth Magaziner has said the measure would increase the unfunded liability for the Municipal Employees' Retirement System (MERS) by $4 million. (Magaziner called on lawmakers to not pass the bill.)

"In addition," Raimondo said in her veto message, "this change will also increase costs for municipalities outside MERS, which have approximately the same number of firefighters as MERS municipalities -- and as a result, total pension cost growth at the local level could approach $3 million per year were this bill to become law."

Raimondo goes on to say the presumption for heart ailments leading to disability pensions would move "Rhode Island in the opposite direction" from the kind of tools municipalities need "to control costs, maintain sound fiscal footing and balance budgets without the need to raise taxes on homeowners and businesses."

She said progress in stabilizing local pension plans explains why the RI League of Cities and Towns and the RI Public Expenditure Council called for the defeat of the expanded disability benefit for firefighters.

"It would create a significant new unfunded local pension benefit that would cost millions of dollars annually in new pension obligations for cities and towns -- likely resulting in simultaneous property tax increases," Raimondo said. "Finally, as a matter of fairness, the State should make sure this benefit is only available to those hard-working men and women who have suffered a stroke or heart disease as a direct result of their service in the line of duty. Changes like the one before me today weaken the system overall, putting this critical benefit at risk for those firefighters truly in need."

It remains unclear if the General Assembly will override the governor's veto when lawmakers start the 2018 session in January. House spokesman Larry Berman said the process would need to start in the Senate because the meaure is a Senate bill, and Senate spokesman Greg Pare said, "No determination has been made regarding whether the Senate will override at this point."