You probably wouldn’t take the summer off if your household’s finances were on the brink of insolvency. But that’s exactly what the Rhode Island General Assembly did, with a $9.4-billion pension crisis looming. It took the summer off, opting to gather in a special session in October.
General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Governor Chafee have failed to press the issue hard enough and have taken cover behind a 12-member pro-union Pension Advisory Board that, by my count, consists of only three true taxpayer advocates. Raimondo and Chafee failed to even attend the latest Pension Advisory Board meeting, and Raimondo only had time to hang for the first half of another one.
House Finance Committee Chairman Helio Melo, (D-East Providence) wants to have a joint House and Senate briefing on the status of the Pension Advisory Board’s work. “It would be a good opportunity in the month of September for our membership to be kind of briefed as to what has been going on and how it is progressing along,” Melo said. That “kind of” strikes me as the language of someone who’s still on vacation, not serious about reform—unless of course it involves turning Twin River into a full-blown casino.
At the end of the last session, Mr. Melo and members of the House slid in a gambling referendum at the last minute, passing it by a vote of 60–9, assuring it a spot on the 2012 ballot. Now they can use the higher revenue projections of the table games to help make a case for using the money for pension reform. But this is not real reform.
Speaker Fox said recently that the General Assembly finance committees may start meeting as soon as September as they would be the first to weigh any pension proposal. Well, including Finance Committee Chairman Melo, 13 of the 16 committee members are Democrats. On the Senate Finance Committee nine of 10 are Democrats, none are Republicans, and one is an independent.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel DuPont (D-East Providence) recently said the following about the September pension briefing, “The sooner we start, the more thorough the process can be. Because it needs to be. My hope is that it will happen sooner rather than later.” Yet before summer break the Senate showed no sign of urgency except for an 11th-hour vote on approving binding arbitration for teachers and school employees.
Eight of the 10 members of the Senate Finance Committee, including DuPont, voted for binding arbitration. This is how the politicians take the power of the purse away from its owner, the taxpayer, and give it to a non-elected official whose job security depends on union leadership for future arbitration work.
There’s no doubt that pieces of the pension reform puzzle have already been put into place. Raimondo and Chafee have chosen to take cover behind the Pension Advisory Board and remain hidden from the tough decisions. The House has shown its hand with the Twin River gambling referendum, and the Senate with its binding arbitration bill (not voted on by the House).
I know you wouldn’t take the summer off if you had these types of money troubles. I certainly wouldn’t hire an advisory board to stand up for me, and I wouldn’t go to the casino or let some third party tell me what I need to spend. You probably wouldn’t either. But that’s exactly what’s playing out in Rhode Island’s pension reform debate.