Veto renders contract bill up to legislators
Author of legislation that mayors and town managers lobbied so hard for Gov. Gina Raimondo to veto offered no opinion Friday on the outcome of the measure that would leave municipal contracts in place until a successor agreement is reached.
“I have faith in the advice of the leadership,” said Warwick Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson.
Last Wednesday Raimondo vetoed the bill that easily gained passage in the House and the Senate. In her veto message, Raimondo said the legislation “ties the hands of our municipal leaders – and ultimately binds our taxpayers – to contracts that would never end. Rhode Island already has some of the highest property taxes in the country and I cannot support legislation that would increase this burden on everyday Rhode Islanders.”
Mayor Scott Avedisian, who joined the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns and other municipal leaders in opposing the bill, thanked Raimondo for her veto. He could not say whether there would be an effort to override the veto and if municipal leaders would work to defeat it.
“I think the governor’s veto was pretty direct and pretty clear as to why,” Avedisian said on Friday. “Under normal circumstances, when we have started new negotiations on a contract, one of the first discussions is whether or not you’re going to abide by the old contract and it has worked well to allow us to make those decisions each time we’re negotiating.”
In order for an override, House and Senate leaders would need to reconvene the two bodies and three quarters of the members of both groups would have to vote for the override. House and Senate leaders, who have yet to agree on a state budget, have until the end of the year and the commencement of the 2018 session to reconvene. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has talked about a fall session and on Monday Larry Berman, his spokesman said, “There are no new developments on the budget standoff. The Speaker and Senate President met last week and they have another meeting planned for tomorrow.”
Berman went on to say, “Assuming the Senate comes back into session soon to reconsider and pass the House budget, as the president has publicly stated, the Speaker has indicated a willingness to come back in September and complete unfinished legislative business from the session.”
As for whether the Speaker would consider an override of the governor’s veto, Berman said, “He [Mattiello] has not made a determination if that agenda would include taking up any vetoes. He wants to talk to the bill sponsors, his House members and the Senate President before making any decisions on vetoes.”
Vella-Wilkinson said she is not looking at any amendments to the legislation, which would not be possible if it were to come up for an override vote, and that the bill simply puts in place a practice that had successfully taken place for decades.
“We have had labor peace in place for 20 years since the practice has been in place,” she said. She called arguments from municipal leaders that the bill would result in increased municipal costs, “absolutely untrue.”
The root to Vella-Wilkinson’s legislation is the failure of the Warwick School Committee and the Warwick Teachers Union to reach a contract after two years of talks, mediation and arbitration. While in the past 20 years the committee and teachers have been unable to reach an agreement for even longer periods, this administration challenged the practice of working under the terms of the expired contract until a new one is reached. The committee has been successful in gaining the court’s approval to lay off more than the 20 teachers permitted under the prior contract during the consolidation of secondary schools.
Vella-Wilkinson said the bill would “reinstate a practice that works.”
The governor’s veto does not appear to impact the current status of the teacher contract impasse. The union turned down the mediators’ – attorney Vincent Ragosta and Avedisian’s – last best offer that would have given teachers 3 percent pay raises for each of the next three years. The offer did not include retro pay raises for the years teachers were without a contract.
On Monday Darlene Netcoh, president of the Warwick Teachers Union, qualified the so-called “mediators’ offer” as really a “non-binding advisory opinion.” As such, she explained, the mediators had not sought union input in putting together a proposal that was later approved by the School Committee.
“We want another mediation or negotiation session because this is not done,” she said.
Superintendent Philip Thornton said Friday that no additional mediation sessions are planned and he is hopeful that the arbitrator will finalize his findings by the end of the summer. The union said it would accept the arbitrator’s award although findings with financial impacts are non-binding. Thornton said he couldn’t financially bind taxpayers to an agreement without knowing what that cost might be.
Netcoh likewise thought the arbitrator could have a ruling before school starts. Netcoh reiterated that the union would abide by a ruling, but pointed out, in order for it to become a contract, the parties would need to meet to hammer out the language and the School Committee, as well as the union membership, would need to approve the terms.
As for Vella-Wilkinson’s legislation, Netcoh said, “there has been a lot of misinformation and other organizations about Warwick.” She refuted claims the bill would prove costly for taxpayers adding, “this would codify what has been the practice for 25 years.”
In a statement issued Monday afternoon, Netcoh said, “Although there has been much hyperbole from some mayors and school committees, when this bill becomes law, the ability for management to negotiate successor collective bargaining agreements will not end. Instead, there will be a level playing field at the bargaining table for both the employer and the employees. A settled collective bargaining agreement is the result of compromise on both sides. If either side wants a change in language in the successor agreement, then that side needs to bargain and compromise for it. Employers should not be able to wait for a contract to expire and then get their way.”