PROVIDENCE – Demonstrating vigilance against what they fear might be “eleventh-hour, last minute shenanigans” pulled by the General Assembly on the pension reform legislation scheduled for a final vote on Thursday, three government watchdog groups held a Statehouse press conference to urge that the bill be passed in its current form.
The RI Statewide Coalition (RISC), the Ocean State Tea Party in Action (OSTPA) and Operation Clean Government (OCG) say they want no changes to the bill which passed the House and Senate finance committees in amended form last week. But they also say they want legislators to make reforming “underwater” municipally run pension plans that are not fixed in the pension reform package for state employees and teachers as well as other post-employment benefits (OPEB), mostly health insurance plans, the top priority when they return for a new session in January.
“We’re nervous that at some late moment, there may be some deal-making or something that is not transparent,” said RISC executive director Harriet Lloyd. “The level of trust needs to be raised in this state, and hopefully this will do it. We will be nervous until we see this bill come through as it currently stands.
“Of course, since this is the Rhode Island General Assembly, we know it’s not always over until it is over, so we are urging that the already modified bill not be subjected to any further watering down as we get toward Thursday’s vote,” Lloyd said. “We know this is not a perfect bill, but we also know it represents a victory for the Rhode Island taxpayer in the immediate term.
“I think I’m less nervous, I think that’s fair to say on behalf of the Ocean State Tea Party in Action,” Lisa Blais, OSTPA founder Lisa Blais told reporters, “solely because there is a lot of political capital that has been invested up to this point to get this floor vote on Thursday.
“It would be a pretty wild scene,” Blais added, “if this whole thing goes down in flames, so I’m a bit more confident that indeed this will work.”
However, she noted, “we know deals are being cut all the time in the halls of this Statehouse out of sight of the regular citizen, out of the sight of the regular taxpayer. We do know the shenanigans that go on, it’s called politics and it’s a particularly interesting culture in Rhode Island.
“If we fall short on Thursday by allowing any bill to get passed that does not save the taxpayer, at a minimum, the $300 million bill we’re going to be facing in the next fiscal year, then we may as well turn out the lights and everybody leave.”
Blais said, “we hope there will be the political stamina to withstand any potential amendments that may hit the House floor or the Senate floor to whittle down…real systemic change that everyone in this state needs.
Asked if there could be any amendments that might improve the bill, Blais said any amendment should be supported by a full actuarial study before it is seriously considered.
“I’m not nervous, but I’m on heavy medication,” joked Margaret Kane of Operation Clean Government, who also participated in the press conference.
So far in the creation of the bill, Kane said, “they followed an open, transparent and accountable process in assessing the problem and developing the solution. We think this should be the model going forward for the rest of this problem and in fact other major problems that are facing this state.”
Addressing union complaints that the proposed pension changes are unfair, especially to retirees and long-term employees, Keith Anderson, an East Providence schoolteacher who supports reform, said, “There comes a point in time when fairness meets reality, and unfortunately reality has hit. Something has to be done about the pension system. That’s why I stand on the side of reform.”
On a similar theme, Sean Gately of Cranston said, “I had a contract with my city that I would have good roads, good utilities, that my children would be afforded a well-rounded education, that contract has been broken with me.
Lloyd said RISC is “certainly looking very carefully at the voting records over the next few days. This will form the real basis of how we stand in the next election. There is no greater issue to us than the finances of this state, so we will definitely be taking our positions accordingly.”