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POLITICS AS USUAL (By Jim Baron) Binding arbitration in Ken Block's sights

August 21, 2011

Gina Raimondo, the state’s general treasurer, famously said a few months ago that pension liability isn’t “a” problem, it is “the” problem facing the state.
Not necessarily.
A group is forming right now calling itself the Rhode Island Coalition Against Binding Arbitration that wants to keep that contentious issue in the headlines and in voters’ heads, especially as the General Assembly prepares to reconvene in October to deal with that other matter. Part of what is keeping binding arbitration opponents on the alert is the fear that the legislature will pull a fast one and try to sneak through a binding arbitration bill amid the pension debate.
Some municipal unions, such as police and firefighters already have a provision for binding arbitration, in which an individual or panel of supposedly independent arbiters have the final say in solving contract deadlocks. Now, as some school committees — such as East Providence a few years ago — are taking firmer stances in contract negotiations, teachers unions are making a concerted lobbying push to get the General Assembly to authorize binding arbitration for teachers. Some arbitration schemes call for the arbitrators to choose between the two sides’ last best offers, others allow the arbitrators to come up with their own compromise solution.
Unions say arbitration is a fair and effective means of resolving labor disputes. Public officials such as mayors, city councils and school committees claim the process has historically skewed in favor of labor, to the detriment of taxpayers and are the cause of budget-busting work rules like minimum manning for police and firefighters and pension agreements that cities and towns can no longer afford.
One of the organizers of RICABA is Ken Block, the founder of the RI Moderate Party and an unsuccessful candidate for governor last year. Block, a software executive in his non-political life, has set up a website, to put out information about binding arbitration
He said he came up with the idea listening to Timothy Duffy, director of the RI Association of School Committees, testify at a legislative hearing, “how almost universally opposed local school committees were to the whole idea of binding arbitration, I know a great many mayors were against it and a great many town and city councils were against it. It personally surprised me greatly that the Senate, in the face of all that local opposition, went ahead and passed a bill on binding arbitration.” (That was on the next-to-last night of the General Assembly session, the bill died because the House never took it up or voted on it.)
Block says the website will allow senators — and others in elective office — to see, visually, what that opposition looked like.
So it has separate lists for mayors or town managers; city or town councils; school committees and the state Senate and House. Each elected official in those positions are listed by name, political party where applicable, and his or her stand for or against binding arbitration.
Sure enough, while there are many individuals whose position is listed as “unknown,” the overwhelming number, especially on city or town councils and school committees is opposed to binding arbitration.
The idea, Block said, “it would be a powerful statement to be able to show a fairly solid block of opposition to binding arbitration at the local level and then juxtapose that to the Senate vote (20-17 in favor of arbitration), which really made no sense to me.”
He said he is “pretty confident we will end up with many thousands of people signing up,” once the group gets rolling and putting its message out, which will probably ne in a couple of weeks.
“It’s premature to really talk about what it is yet, especially in terms of the coalition,” Block told Politics as Usual. “The members of the coalition aren’t formalized because they haven’t taken the votes.” The only group officially on board as of last week, Block says, is the education advocacy group RI CAN (Campaign for Achievement Now).
Despite the concerns of Block and some other groups like RISC (RI Statewide Coalition) I don’t see this as an immediate issue, as in the October special legislative session.
The only way binding arbitration would become an active issue in October is if the Senate tore a page out of the playbook of the Republican Tea Partiers in Congress and held the passage of a pension bill hostage to having a vote on binding arbitration.
That won’t happen for two reasons. One, it might not work. House Speaker Gordon Fox probably wouldn’t let himself get bullied, especially on the tar-baby issue of binding arbitration. Two it would sure-as-shootin’ cost some senators their seats in 2012, and representatives, too, if any of them went along with it.
Binding arbitration is a favorite issue with unions, who would support with money and organizational help any lawmaker on their side. But it will be poison anywhere else on the campaign trail. No legislator wants to spend next summer walking door-to-door explaining why they voted in favor of binding arbitration. That’s why binding arbitration will probably have a tough time and not make it through the legislative session that starts next January.
Despite the conventional wisdom jammed down our throats so often, this is not really a very good time to be a union in Rhode Island.
Because of groups like RISC and the RI Tea Party, legislators know people are watching the General Assembly now more carefully than maybe at any time in history.
Talk radio takes a lot of abuse, sometimes even in this space, but this is a way in which it truly provides a valuable service. Lawmakers and other elected officials can hear (and believe me, they listen) the actual voices of Frank from Pawtucket, Susan from North Smithfield and Pat from West Warwick. They can hear the anger, the frustration and the disappointment in their constituents’ voices much better than they could in a letter, an e-mail, or even a personal phone call, where the constituents might not let their emotions come as close to the surface as they do on talk radio.
Another school of conventional wisdom says that, assuming the assembly does pass some sort of major pension reform in October, it might be tempted to give unions binding arbitration in the January session as sort of a consolation prize. That is a possibility but, I still believe, a remote one.

Scaled-back blogs
Information is a precious commodity and it is always a shame to see a quality provider of reliable information and commentary goes away. We’ve all seen daily newspapers disappear across the country and even the world.
Websites and blogs started springing up to fill the void, many of them excellent, many not so much.
Rhode Island has been fortunate to have several excellent blogs and bloggers but recently one of them gave us bad news.
The folks at Anchor, a conservatively-oriented political site, announced this week that they are being forced to scale back their efforts so that the main contributors can concentrate on earning a living at their day jobs. They had been hoping to raise enough money to sustain a full-time staffer on a payroll, but as Justin Katz and Marc Comtois (who, along with Monique Chartier do the lion’s share of the posting) explained in separate posts, that didn’t happen.
That is truly a shame.
In navy-blue Rhode Island, it is important, if not imperative, to have a conservative voice speaking out, even if the message often falls on deaf ears.
As blogs go, Anchor Rising is an excellent one. The postings are consistently of a high intellectual level, well argued and supported with facts. You don’t have to agree with them, but you have to respect them as well-reasoned opinions. There is almost none of the name-calling, flaming and other vitriol that too often mar many sites, particularly political discussions) on the Internet. Some of the reply comments can get a bit rambunctious, but that is always going to happen when you deal with the public.
Anchor Rising goes on, but its posts will be fewer and further between, and that is unfortunate.
If you have an interest in keeping many sides of the political dialogue ongoing and vibrant (and you do, whether you recognize it or not) you might want to visit Anchor Rising on the web and check it out. There is a link there you can click on to donate money (nothing good comes free). If you are one of those rich conservatives people read about (sometimes on this page), you might want to consider underwriting a valuable voice in the political debate.

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