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POLITICS AS USUAL: Will the pension deal hold?

February 19, 2014

Editor's note: This column first appeared in The Times on Feb. 17. Read Jim Baron's column every Monday in The Times and The Call.

In the end, despite all their bravado and bluffing, neither the unions nor the state officials battling over the 2011 pension reform law wanted to take their chances on how the five wise souls of the RI Supreme Court would rule on the constitutional issue at stake: Can the General Assembly make legislative changes to employee pensions after the workers and retirees have spent their careers paying into the system?
In this game of chicken, the unions appear to have flinched first.
Yes, they got a few changes in the COLAs (cost of living adjustments) and some face-saving modifications in the rules regarding how old workers have to be and how many years they must have on the job in order to qualify for a pension. But at Friday’s press conference announcing the deal it was Gov. Lincoln Chafee and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo in the spotlight boasting about how they had preserved about 95 percent of the money savings in the 2011 law.
Now the question is: Will the deal hold?
While there are bound to be a few disgruntled union members unhappy with the terms of the agreement, my hunch is the settlement will survive votes by the rank-and-file union members and, later the larger members of the “classes” – including non-union employees -- that will be formed turning the litigation into a class-action suit for the purposes of ratifying the settlement.
Then it goes to the General Assembly to approve it or not and right now I wouldn’t bet my own money either way.
To say that House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva
Weed have shown a disinclination to reopen the pension bill debate would be a gross understatement. Particularly in an election year, they really don’t want to touch this issue with a 10-foot pole. With already contentious issues like 38 Studios, the Sakonnet River Bridge tolls and whether to cut or eliminate the sales tax, the last thing they want is to have to twist their predominantly-Democratic members’ arms on a bill that will tick off either taxpayers or unions. Especially when Republicans and just about everybody else is demanding they address the state’s rampant unemployment to the exclusion of any and all other issues.
Another thought: As was the case with the original law, Raimondo is going to be advocating the settlement be accepted as is, without changes, because any amendments to the bill would scotch the deal altogether. General Assembly leaders have to be wondering how many times they are going to accept a “take it or leave it” ultimatum from Raimondo, especially if they think they might have to deal with her as governor starting next January.
If there was a winner in this protracted legal struggle, it is Lincoln Chafee. Chafee said from the start he thought a negotiated settlement of the case was the way to go, that is what happens, and the state got the best of the agreement.
Raimondo on the other hand had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the mediation and now she is taking heat (talk radio was on fire Friday afternoon after the announcement) from some of her fiercest supporters for, as they see it, selling out on her signature achievement: corralling runaway state pension benefits and putting those damned unions in their place.
Even though she agreed to the settlement, she can’t possibly believe that she is going to win any favor from the public employee unions that still have a say in Democratic primaries. They are never going to forgive her and they would support John DePetro for governor before they would back Raimondo.


Raimondo did get some good news this week from a Channel 12/Providence
Journal poll that showed Clay Pell taking a huge swath of votes from the frontrunner in the Democratic primary race, Providence Mayor Angel
Taveras. Raimondo, whose campaign warchest is groaning with an overabundance of cash, could even direct some of her supporters to throw some dollars Pell’s way so he can further pump up his numbers at Taveras’ expense.
The poll showed Taveras with 31 percent of the Democratic primary to
Raimondo’s 27 percent and Pell’s 15 percent. Todd Giroux, relegated to
also-ran status, had 1 percent. Perhaps the most interesting figure,
however, was the third-place finisher, some guy called Not Sure, named by 25 percent of those responding.
Not Sure’s votes are going to go somewhere (or stay home) on primary day and right now the most likely recipient might be Pell.
When poll subjects were asked if they have a favorable or unfavorable view of Pell, the most common answer by far – 41 percent – was “Who the hell is Clay Pell?”
That means Pell is the candidate with room to grow. For good or ill,
people know who Taveras and Raimondo are and what they think about them.
With 25 percent of Democratic primary voters not knowing whom to support at this point, and nearly half of them still finding out who Pell is, it gives him a chance to -- if not win, which he probably won’t – then to throw the race to Raimondo, which he just might do.
Timing is everything in politics and it is just too bad that the poll was conducted the week before the announcement of the pension settlement. If Joe Fleming’s poll had gone into the field this week, after the details of the settlement were announced, it would have told us more about how that will sway the primary vote one way or the other.
One of Raimondo’s selling points is that she would be the state’s first female governor, but the poll shows Taveras with a strong lead – 31 percent to 25 percent – over Raimondo among the women polled. His lead is smaller – 32 percent to 30 percent – among men.
Raimondo leads Taveras, according to the poll, among Independents – 31
percent to 28 percent – but among Democrats Taveras holds a hefty 35
percent to 26 percent lead. That means Raimondo is going to have to spend a lot of the $2 million-plus she has in the bank to get Independents to come out and vote in the Democratic primary.
While this poll gives us something of a baseline in the upcoming race, the September 9 primary date is still a long way away and much will happen between now and then. This is going to be a fun one to watch and we haven’t even started talking about the Allan Fung/Ken Block Republican primary yet. And since candidates don’t have to declare until June 25, we might not even know who all the candidates are yet.

Jim Baron is a political reporter and columnist for The Times and The Call.


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