Donna Perry: Free Tuition and RI’s Public Sector Entitlements

Thursday, May 10, 2012


As the Providence City Council was resolving a public spat over groundbreaking ordinance changes to rein in the city’s faltering public pension system, a seemingly unrelated report on tuition waivers for the state college system surfaced. The comprehensive report revealed that a stunningly wide array of people have been deemed eligible for reduced or outright free college educations in the state by virtue of a family member’s public employment in certain posts or categories. But the truth is the outrages over long needed changes in Providence by some—not all—but some, within the ranks of the unions and public sector retirees, and the revelations in the free college tuition or “tuition waiver” program, are all part of the same conversation now underway in the state.

Rhode Island’s state and local statutes and contracts, cemented in over decades by local union backed officials or statewide union legislators themselves, have created a breathtaking broad benefit menu of goodies for certain categories of public employees that seem aimed at taking care of all of life’s major financial obligations.

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To have for the duration of one’s working life—and retirement--reduced or free health care coverage; a state issued lifelong retirement check, portions for which you did not make contributions; andreduced or free college education for family members would pretty much run the gamut of major expenses for most ordinary people. (The only thing missing one supposes was having the government purchase your home or fund your vacations.) The tuition waiver tale is now exposing the fact that a deeply entrenched cultural mindset in the state has supported the policies of a veritable entitlement empire for those on the public payroll. It’s important to break down the distinction here however between policies of reduced tuition for family members of certain levels of university and college teaching staff, which is commonly done by institutions of higher learning across the country—and the far wider reaching Rhode Island practice.

It appears that in this state, outright FREE tuition, not tuition discounts, as is more commonly done elsewhere or in private colleges, isnot only extended to family members of virtually every employee of institutions like URI and RIC, including janitors and secretaries, but also extends far beyond the college or university’s walls, most notably to categories of police and firefighters statewide. The practice of extending free tuition to family members of deceased police and firefighters, killed in the line of duty, is certainly not the issue in question here. But it’s the extension of that benefit to the children or other family members of police and firefighters-- who qualify for a disability pension-- that demands greater scrutiny in light of documented reports of widespread abuse of the disability pension system. It turns out just this year alone;disability pensions are extending free tuition to some 91 students that include either the pension recipient themselves or their dependent children.

What further warrantsa deeper re-evaluation of the policy is the fact that Rhode Island’s ability to maintain an affordable college educationat its state university for the average, middle class, unconnected, non-public employed Rhode Islander is vanishing, as the state seeks to impose tuition hikes for the coming year of nearly 10%. That’s partly because institutions like URI, facing the combination of reduced state aid plus the loss of tuition revenue from the multiple categories of those attending free or at greatly reduced rates, now appear caught in a vicious circle. In fact, just last year alone the cost to the taxpayer of waived tuitions at URI was over $ 6 Million dollars, and the free tuition tab at the three state run public colleges and university combined has soared to $ 10.6 million a year.

A vivid example of the excesses of the policies within the disability pension system that provide lifelong benefits and waived college costs can certainly be found in a case in Johnston. It was recently reported that David Tocco, the son of the now deceased Police Chief, William Tocco, Jr., retired roughly 25 years ago after just 8 years on the force, claimed a stress-related illness, and started collecting a disability pensions for life. That pension now amounts to $80,473 a year and furthermore, Tocco was able to utilize tuition waivers of nearly $7,000 for a family member.The comments made by the Chairman of the Board of Police Officers Relief, the review Board that participated in granting the Tocco disability pension, clearly captures the entitlement cultural mindset at work here.

Board Chair Police Sergeant Mark Boisclair, in responding to a reporter about the justification for paying for the tuition of the children of this type of disability pension collector, stated that “such pensioners hurt themselves by serving their communities……can’t work… and I think it’s a good thing for them and their families to see the people of Rhode Island care for them.” What seems lost in this particular culture is the possibility that certain pensioners are actually hurting their communities to a much greater degree because of excesses of the system which have created an exclusive class of privilege and entitlement far beyond the reach of the rest of the Rhode Island taxpaying middle class.

Donna Perry is Executive Director of RISC,


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