EngageRI, a group of Rhode Islanders in support of pension reform, is taking to the streets to get people involved in the pension debate. Last week, they held a conference call “Town Hall,” in which more than 3,000 concerned citizens called in to voice their opinions to General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, who was available to answer questions.
Tonight, they’re hosting a free pizza party at Picasso’s Pizza from 5 to 7 p.m., at which those who sit and write a letter to their legislators in favor of pension reform receive a free slice of pizza.
Privately funded, EngageRI has a 501c4 status. Jon Duffy, a member of EngageRI who acts as the coalition’s spokesman, said because of their status, they legally do not have to reveal who their donors are. Further phone calls to Duffy to confirm the group’s budget went unreturned as of press time.
The group is comprised of 60 coalition members, and a board, headed up by co-chairs Ed Cooney, Senior VP of Nortek, Inc., and Margaret Holland McDuff, CEO of Family Service of RI.
“EngageRI is a group of business and social service leaders in the state…who have come together to be a positive voice in the comprehensive pension reform debate,” said Duffy.
Duffy said the purpose of the group is to educate Rhode Islanders about pension reform, and to “engage” them in the topic. Hence the name.
“People are aware,” he said. “Ninety-two percent of Rhode Islanders want to see some type of reform.”
Last night, EngageRI hosted a rally at the State House Rotunda that included special guest speakers like Governor Lincoln Chafee, House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed.
Duffy and others from EngageRI hope that concerned citizens will rally together in favor of pension reform. He referenced the car tax revolts that have been ongoing in Warwick, saying that if people are concerned about increased car taxes, they should be aware that without pension reform, their taxes would increase far more dramatically.
“This is a wakeup call,” he said. “It’s really important to understand what no reform would do not only to the state, but to individuals.”
He called the increase in car taxes in Warwick “peanuts” to what would happen without pension reform.
“That’s hundreds of dollars, this would be thousands,” he said.
But in last week’s telephone “town hall,” not all of the callers were on EngageRI’s side.
Duffy said the organization randomly selected 30,000 people from various districts to participate. He said he was pleasantly surprised that 10 percent of those invited called into the forum.
Some callers, former state workers, were angry that the state had “failed to keep its promise.” Other, current state and municipal workers raised concerns regarding their retirement.
Raimondo offered two options: work longer and continue to accrue a pension, or retire when they were slated to retire, and only have the benefits they’ve earned to this point.
Calls were kept short, and callers were allowed one question apiece.
One caller simply asked, “Where did all the money go?”
Raimondo answered by explaining benefits that were made years ago were unaffordable, and have drained the coffers.
“Rhode Island is not a place where [pension reform] is an option anymore,” she said.
To help support the debate, and push followers in the direction of pension reform, EngageRI has been running television and print ads.
Callers to EngageRI will hear only one song when put on hold, with the lyrics, “Don’t just stand there, dear, climb aboard; I won’t stop ‘till we see the shore.”
Duffy said the coalition is urging people to get involved, and see the “truth in numbers.” The EngageRI website showcases the portion of each taxpayer dollar to go toward pensions from 2002 to 2008.
Duffy said the coalition was formed in order to help people understand why they should support pension reform, and how to best get involved in the reform process.
“Our only role is to be a positive voice in the reform crisis,” he said.