Scott MacKay Commentary: Time For A Rhode Island Pension Deal

Mar 20, 2015

Once again, Rhode Island politics is ensnared in a public employee pension controversy. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says it’s time to put this issue in our collective rear view mirror.

Votes are set to be cast this week for a settlement in the state's pension lawsuit.
Credit RIPR FILE

It’s well past time to get beyond the noisy debate over public employee pensions in Rhode Island. It’s a joust that has ensnared  the Statehouse for more than a generation. It has long pitted the business community against public employees and their union leaders, fractured relations between conservatives and liberals and led to tortuous attempts for years to shore up the system.

Now, the unions representing public workers and state retirees are back at the bargaining table with state government, trying to forge yet another agreement that would halt the never-ending union court challenge to the 2011 pension overhaul law championed by then-State Treasurer Gina Raimondo, now our governor.

There is urgency. A trial date is set for Patriots Day, which is April 20 this year. If you think the Boston Marathon is a long slog, what do you think is going to happen if this matter goes to trial? It could take years and multiple court appeals for this to be resolved merely because so much is at stake for workers, retirees and taxpayers.

The pension legal wrangling has more angles than geometry class. More than 50 lawyers have worked on the case do far, and it hasn’t even gone to trial.

Some elementary history. Rhode Island has struggled with legacy pension costs for many years.  The unions beat back attempts to cut retiree benefits, until the 2008 stock market crash hollowed out the pension fund and the Central Falls bankruptcy led to a time of reckoning.

In the special pension Assembly legislative session of 2011, benefits for retirees were cut and younger employees were shifted to plans less costly for taxpayers. After a  13-month negotiation, a settlement was reached that tweaked the Assembly to make it a bit more generous to retirees. That settlement, forged under the administration of former Gov. Lincoln Chafee, won approval from five of six union groups that represent nearly all of the 70,000 employees and retirees covered by the state pension system. It met defeat when a small union group of about 200 police officers scuttled it.

So it was back to the bargaining table for yet another round of talks, overseen this time by retired RI Supreme Court Justice Frank Williams. The negotiations have been conducted in secrecy, under a gag order imposed by the trial  judge, Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter.

The details of this new deal have not been put in the public domain, which has sparked criticism from opponents of any new settlement and some in the media. Yet, keeping things quiet is not unusual in labor negotiations. Because any deal would have to be approved by the governor and Assembly, details will emerge soon after the union vote, which is scheduled for today at the Twin River Casino.

We can assume that this new package will be slightly more generous to retirees and long-time state and municipal employees. Expect to see a bit more money in cost-of-living allowances and a likely lowering of the retiree age from 67 to 62 or 63 for longtime workers. This would be good for education, opening up some jobs for younger teachers. In Providence, more than 90 percent of students are members of minority groups, while about 80 percent of teachers are white. Opening up some teaching jobs through retirement could help right this wrong.

If this new pact is approved, it would have one grand virtue: Removing the dark cloud of uncertainty from Rhode Island’s  financial future. A court victory by the unions could bankrupt our struggling little state.

If you think that Rhode Island got bad national press from the collapse of Central Falls and the 38 Studios fiasco, how do you think the rest of the nation and the national business community would react if Rhode Island was mentioned in the same headlines as Detroit?

This won’t end pension politics in our state. Some of our city and town pension systems are facing bigger problems that the state system. Chafee tried to address this, but ran into a wall of opposition from Raimondo and Assembly leaders.

Will Rogers dictum was that he was a Democrat, which meant that he was a member of "no organized party." Too often Rhode Island’s fractious Democrats mirror that motto. Now they can step up and say they solved a pension mess without resorting to the courts or such nasty and divisive policies as Wisconsin’s anti-union legislation that tied that Statehouse in knots for months.

For the solvency of our state, let’s hope a reasonable settlement emerges. It’s time we moved forward under the banner of cooperation, not confrontation.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org