It seemed, for a handful of days, like this week might have become one of the most significant in the state’s history. And while major anticipated developments have been delayed, the issue at hand will play a major role in shaping Rhode Island’s future.
The Federal Mediation Conciliation Service, which for more than a year has been overseeing secret talks between state leaders and public unions on litigation related to the landmark 2011 pension system overhaul, had scheduled a Wednesday press conference to discuss developments in the matter. On Monday, Gov. Lincoln Chafee and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, who championed the overhaul, briefly key Democratic lawmakers on a possible settlement.
Early Wednesday, however, came an announcement that the press event was postponed “as the parties continue to talk and work with federal mediators.” A trial date of Sept. 15 has been set, although Raimondo has said those involved remain optimistic about a deal. Later Wednesday came word the Rhode Island Retirement Board will hold a special meeting Friday to discuss a possible settlement.
All parties involved have been virtually silent on any specifics, both earlier in the week and following Wednesday’s developments. House Speaker Gordon D. Fox did tell reporters he and others had received a look at the key points of a proposed deal. The briefing, he said, left “a lot to digest.”
How any settlement ultimately plays out will have enormous implications for the state as a whole, as well as for its cities and towns. The overhaul approved by the General Assembly was designed to save billions and stave off financial ruin while ensuring public employees would receive pensions. If the settlement jeopardizes the core objective of fiscal stability in the pension system, the ripple effects could be devastating.
It is also possible a deal could impact collective bargaining on the local level. In Cranston, where a pension reform agreement with police and fire personnel recently received the final needed approvals, Mayor Allan Fung had this week preemptively planned a special closed-door meeting with the City Council to discuss such a development. In Warwick, Mayor Scott Avedisian said he had not been informed of how an agreement might impact the city. The city’s teachers are in the state system.
Fung also this week challenged both Chafee and Raimondo to “come clean” regarding what has been discussed behind closed doors and was critical of the failure to involve municipal leaders in the process or keep them appraised. His GOP opponent in the gubernatorial primary, Ken Block, on Wednesday accused the governor and treasurer of “selling out the taxpayers and state employees to the union bosses” through closed-door talks and called for a more transparent process.
Any settlement will require approval by the General Assembly, and with elections coming up in November such a process is certain to be rocky and wrought with political considerations.
The pension overhaul is already a hot-button issue, particularly for public unions. For Raimondo, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, is at once her greatest political asset and most significant vulnerability.
It seemed we would know more very soon, although the timeline has now become uncertain. Once we do, the landscape ahead will come into better focus.
But for now, it is an anxious moment for the Ocean State, which claims the nation’s highest unemployment rate and continues to struggle in terms of finding a new economic identity for the 21st century. Whatever one’s stand on the pension overhaul, the reality of Rhode Island’s precarious position cannot be denied.