December 18, 2014
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Grave importance, but strange process

Last month, as an agreement was announced that would settle legal challenges to Rhode Island’s public pension reform, criticism was focused largely on the closed-door nature of the negotiations.

Now, as the deal works through the first of several required steps for approval, the strange nature of the process is drawing more attention than the earlier secrecy.

Ballots have been mailed to thousands of public workers and retirees, who are divided into six “blocks.” If more than 50 percent of any of those units rejects the pact, litigation continues.

Regardless of what prevailing sentiment may be among eligible voters, however, it seems highly doubtful the deal will fail at this early stage because of the way the process works. The ballots include only one option – a “no” vote – and those that are not returned will be counted in the “yes” column. Union leaders, who as part of the settlement have agreed to actively support the deal throughout the process, have publicly urged voters to simply toss their ballots into the trash can – effectively giving the agreement their blessing.

For a matter with such high stakes, such enormous implications for the state as a whole and thousands of people on a personal level, the voting method appears a bit absurd. Adding to that impression was the recent report of one ballot being mailed to a Pawtucket woman who passed away in 2009.

Union officials have pushed back, characterizing opposition to the settlement and the voting process as either emotion-driven or misinformed. It has also been noted, and correctly so, that this initial voting is but the first of several steps needed for the deal to take effect. Those will include a vote that includes all members of the state’s retirement system, as well as required backing from the General Assembly.

Yet, it is precisely the multi-tiered, highly complex nature that has created questions. The initial round of voting, it certainly appears, will not be a major hurdle. Then comes judicial approval, and the second round of voting, which, if the same procedure is in place, will likely also be easily cleared.

That leads to the most difficult step, the involvement of lawmakers in the midst of an election year. Chances already appear nil that the matter will be taken up in the State House anytime soon, and those odds decrease as November draws closer.

It seems fair to ask whether the process really required so many steps, and whether the inclusion of voting was meant more as a symbolic gesture – or perhaps, even, a delay tactic – than a true gauge. Regardless of where one stands on the settlement, it is concerning that such questions come on the heels of criticism over the manner in which it was reached. The stakes are simply too high.


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