Frustration, questions surround pension deal


It’s been nearly a week since state officials and the legal representation for public unions announced a deal that would settle court challenges to Rhode Island’s landmark pension overhaul.

Many questions about the deal, and the manner in which it was negotiated, remain. What is clear, however, is the level of frustration that surrounds the proposal, particularly on the part of municipal leaders.

Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a GOP candidate for governor, immediately made his opposition to the settlement clear. He has called on the General Assembly to reject the deal, citing its project impact on Rhode Island’s cities, towns and taxpayers, and said those who negotiated the agreement are “treating [municipalities] like an ATM.”

He has also asserted that General Treasurer Gina Raimondo – a Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, key figure in the 2011 pension overhaul and central player in the negotiations – is “playing politics” with the pension system by making any concession to unions.

Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena said it was “kind of a slap in the face” to be asked by Gov. Lincoln Chafee and other officials at a Tuesday briefing to support the plan, given that local voices were not included in the negotiating process.

“A lot of mayors were frustrated and angry … There was no appetite to accept this,” he said.

Raimondo and Chafee frame the settlement as preserving the vast majority of what was achieved in the overhaul while staving off unpredictable and costly litigation. The unions involved say the deal provides tangible benefits for members while similarly averting a potentially disastrous court decision.

The case they make is compelling. There are billions of dollars at stake, dollars that the state, its communities and its citizens simply do not have. And the terms of the agreement do appear more favorable to the state, at least compared with the nearly $9 billion liability faced prior to the 2011 law’s passage.

Yet the anger many have expressed is understandable. Emotions typically run high in such debates, but there is enough murkiness surrounding the negotiating process and the final product that added concern is justifiable.

There is the question of the pension overhaul’s constitutionality, which has never been decided and which would not vanish even with the deal’s passage. There is the added burden to municipalities and taxpayers, after the terms of the 2011 reform were presented as being both legally solid and absolutely vital to our shared fiscal future. And there is the closed-door nature of the mediation process, which – while not atypical and likely even justifiable, given the sensitive nature and high stakes surrounding the discussions – does create questions and foster criticism.

Should the state remain firm and defend the legality of the original pension overhaul? Is the negotiated settlement truly in the best interests of all parties involved? Is there, as Polisena said, the “appetite” among lawmakers and the other parties involved to go along with the deal as constituted?

Depending on who is asked, the answer to those questions is likely to be very different. It seems certain, however, that the issue won’t be going away anytime soon.


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