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State Pols Left in the Dark on Pension Reform Bill

Tuesday, November 01, 2011


It’s being billed as the most important piece of legislation they’ll ever vote on, but some state lawmakers say they’re concerned they won’t have all the details they need when they vote on the pension reform plan proposed by Governor Lincoln Chafee and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo.

If the bill passes as is, pension recipients would likely see their cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) frozen for up to 19 years, the retirement age raised and all state employees would be enrolled in a hybrid plan that would come with a smaller guaranteed benefit. Raimondo says the plan will immediately cut the state’s unfunded liability by $3 billion and that taxpayers will save nearly $3 billion over the next decade.

But with dozens of amendments expected to be introduced, it remains unclear how much different the final piece of legislation will look. That’s what has some members of the General Assembly questioning a decision to rely on the state’s actuary to run numbers on the various scenarios likely to be proposed rather than hiring their own.

Rep. Menard: Treasurer’s Job is Convince Us

State Rep. Rene Menard, a retired firefighter who receives a disability pension, has been one of the most outspoken members of the General Assembly regarding hiring an actuary. Menard contends that lawmakers are being asked to make a $9 billion vote without having all the information they need if changes are made to the bill.

Menard said he trusts Raimondo, but “we’re the legislative branch of government. She’s not.” He said the General Assembly has voted to spend money in other areas “without a blink of the eye” and he can’t understand why they won’t spend money on hiring their own actuary.

“I’ve been saying this is the biggest vote that we’re ever going to see,” Menard said. “I just think we should base our vote on the facts. I would hope that we would retain the services of an actuary, that’s all I’m asking for.”

Menard said it is Raimondo’s job to convince state lawmakers to vote for the bill, which is why he would rather have an independent source to provide the General Assembly with information.

“I’m not calling her a lobbyist, but her position is to convince us that she’s correct and ultimately, that’s what a lobbyist does,” Menard said. “That’s what she’s doing.”

Not Fair to Legislators

Representative Scott Guthrie, another retired firefighter, agreed with Menard. Guthrie said he wants to have the most information available in order to make the vote. He too is calling for an actuary to be hired by the General Assembly.

“Anyone that votes on an important issue such as this must make an informed and educated vote,” Guthrie said. “Without having an actuary on hand to give us the critical data that we need, is not fair to all legislators and also the people they represent.”

Former General Treasurer Candidate and GoLocalProv MINDSETTER™ Tom Sgouros took the argument one step further, calling it “scandalous” that General Assembly leadership would ask members to vote on such technical legislation without providing data and independent actuarial support.

“No legislation can be take-it-or-leave-it,” Sgouros said. "For better and worse, that's the way our system works. As soon as people saw the Raimondo-Chafee plan, it was obvious that some considerations were overlooked. The extra cost of keeping close-to-retirement teachers and state employees was not factored into the cost savings, for example. Assembly members noticed this, but without qualified staff support, they have no way to address it.”

Speaker Fox Encourages Amendments

But House Speaker Gordon Fox says he is committed to a transparent process throughout the pension reform discussion. When the legislation was introduced, Fox encouraged all General Assembly members to attend Finance Committee meetings and voice their opinion on the bill.

In a letter to his members, Fox said now is the time to submit amendment proposals. He has said he has full confidence in the Treasurer’s staff.

“The General Treasurer has the fiduciary responsibility to oversee the state’s retirement funds and the actuary has already looked at a broad range of scenarios at her request,” Fox said in the letter. “It is possible that an amendment you may wish to offer, or one that may be similar, has already been tested by the state’s actuary.”

Fox noted that amendments will be analyzed by the Treasurer and the actuary and said they need to be considered in relation to each other.

“It is also important to remember that the pension reform legislation has many variables that are interconnected,” he said. “As such, they have to be considered in relation to each other. If the actuary and General Treasurer are to provide us with fair, timely and impartial responses to your amendments, it is helpful that they be submitted as soon as possible.”

Common Cause Wants Amendments Made Public 48 Hours in Advance

For Common Cause Executive Director John Marion, the issue isn’t whether the Treasurer is providing accurate information; it’s whether General Assembly members will have the proper time to digest any changes made to the bill.

Marion said Rhode Island has a highly centralized legislature and that it’s difficult from the outside to tell how inclusive leadership is acting on any one issue because the process is so opaque at that level. He said his organization would like to see rank-and-file members should have more access to resources and a greater say in both chambers.

For that reason, Common Cause has been vocal in its calls to make amendments public at least 48 hours prior to any vote so legislators and the public have sufficient time to process any changes.

“Under the current system members are asked to vote on substantive changes not long after first encountering those changes,” Marion said. “That's not fair to the members, nor to the constituents they serve who do not have time to give their representatives input on amendments.”

Rep. Dickinson: I Cannot Vote for this Bill

Timing is also a concern for State Representative Spencer Dickinson, who said rushing the process is unnecessary. Dickinson praised Raimondo and the House Finance committee staff for providing lawmakers with much of the information they need, but said a vote before Thanksgiving might be too soon.

“I think we need several months with this bill and a number of issues have been raised at the hearing and by my constituents,” he said. “If we do this in two weeks, that's like asking me to put a rubber stamp on a bill that's being presented on a take it or leave it basis.”

Dickinson said the process has become too political and with all the money being spent on advertising, it feels like a campaign is taking place. He said he fears rushing a bill without both sides signing off will just result in years of court cases and that nothing will be solved.

“I cannot vote for the bill as is or close to as it is,” Dickinson said. “I'm not saying there isn't a problem, but I just don’t think what we're looking at is going to solve the problem.”


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Why do I NOT become surprised at the GA stumbling about saying they can’t make a decision on something that they do not have their fingerprints all over?
Incompetence is in the blood line of the RI GA. Every one of these reps that say we can’t do anything unless it’s our way (after we figure it out and point the fingers at the mean private sector),do not have the ability if they had a boat load of information.
The Treasurer is an expert in this field and she is making the tough recommendations to stop the bleeding or we will die.
These are not qualified people in the GA and hiring their friends or relatives will not make them any more capable. Face the facts, our legislators have done nothing constructive in 50 years and here we the citizens of RI are again, in the hole that is getting larger by the week.

Comment #1 by Gary Arnold on 2011 11 01

The boat is starting to leak. With the democrats hiring their own "defense actuary" not only will this drag things out, but the original proposal will be sliced and diced to an unrecognizable, watered down failure...........for the tax payer.

Comment #2 by David Beagle on 2011 11 01

IMO they have to know all the information in order to vote on the issue. The passage of this bill is going to effect the lives of many senior citizens. There better not be any surprises in the package after its passed.
I want the GA to know EXACTLY what they are voting on. Look at Obama's health care package. The majority of those in congress didn't even read it.

Comment #3 by Lorraine Botts on 2011 11 01

Most legislators are there for themselves.
Exhibit A. The Carcieri/Sasse tax cut gave everyone making over 200,000 a tax cut. Everyone else, it raised our taxes.
Where was the tea-baggers, Gina, and all the other EngageRI supports?

Comment #4 by Real Clear on 2011 11 01

I'm glad to see that there are people making sense on the Hill. Why would anyone want to expend all of their political capital on a bill put forth by Raimondo and Chafee.

The bill is full of false assumptions and doesnt even include JUDGES,STATE POLICE and CORRECTIONS whose pensions are funded as a line item in the budget, therefore never in jeopardy of being underfunded.

Class warfare plain and simple.

Comment #5 by N. Derz on 2011 11 01

So three guys who are completely bought and paid for by the unions and who would never vote for the bill in a million years anyway are complaining that they don't understand the bill and are in the dark? Did the reporter talk to anyone who supports the bill who feels the same way? Or was this just a coordinated effort by the unions to try to torpedo the bill by making it look like no one knows what is going on?

Comment #6 by ProJo Login on 2011 11 01

While you do have to look with a jaded eye upon the comments of representatives who are retired firefighters, why is Spencer Dickinson bought and paid for by the unions? I just looked him up and I don't see any connections there. Common Cause's idea of having at least 48 hours between introduction of an amendment and the vote is really important. We have seen so many things tucked into legislation at the last minute that came back to bite the taxpayer.

Comment #7 by Pam Thomas on 2011 11 01

Dickinson was recruited and funded by NEA specifcally to take out an incumbent Democrat in a primary who voted the "wrong way" on pension reform in 2010. Look it up. Pat Crowley considers it one of his biggest victories of all time. Of course Crowley also denies that he threatens lawmakers with retaliation if they don't vote "his" way, so you mave to decide which version of Crowley is telling the truth.

Comment #8 by ProJo Login on 2011 11 01

So we have three "blow hard" union boys doing what they do best, stalling, looking for excuses, whatever diversions they can come up with to stall. These boys should have been on top of the game from day 1 - no excuses.

Comment #9 by Marcia O'Connor on 2011 11 01

there is a mountain of info to review. i doubt many legislators will read the whole thing.

you really need raimondo and her staff and the unions to debate the whole thing in front of people that ask questions. thats the only way all the info will be flushed out. noboby in the ga is going take the tiem on their own to read it and it probably doesnt make alot of sense for them to do this.

i watched the hearings last week and they argued about life expectancy.

the unions spent alot of time argueing that the life expectancy was 78 years old. it is , BUT it factors in stillborn deaths, childhood deaths, etc.

raimondo is using 87 years old which is the life expectancy if you live to retirement age.

obviously, raimondos age is the right one for these purposes. maybe if she was allowed to speak up at the hearings, this would have been resolved pretty quickly and eliminated all the misinformation.

Comment #10 by john paycheck on 2011 11 01

So no solution or a bad solution? No ideas coming from the legislature itself? Of course not. I'd bet on having to pay that $650 million next year, along with the tax hikes required.

Comment #11 by John McGrath on 2011 11 01

I guess the glaring question that has to be asked is how many of these people are on pensions? Disability pensions, straight pensions, whatever, but just who have them and will they vote on the reform bill?

Comment #12 by Lance Chappell on 2011 11 01

Thanks, projo login, I did just google "spencer dickinson and nea" and he's certainly being credited as a person brought in to support the unions and kick out the incumbent who was supporting pension reform. But what I found interesting is a piece that said as of the end of october last year he raised $600 (outside of the $2000 of supposedly his own money that he contributed), and $200 of that was from teacher unions. Makes you think that it doesn't take all that much money to influence an election. The reformers have to be out there in 2012 with cash for their own candidates -- it apparently doesn't take that much.

Comment #13 by Pam Thomas on 2011 11 01

Lance, a story in the projo in late september entitled "Many R.I. legislators have a personal stake in pension changes" said more than half of the legislators have a direct connection to a pension -- 58 out of 113. Unfortunately, I can no longer figure out how to work the projo archives (since their change) to provide more info, but maybe you can get it somehow for more detail.

Comment #14 by Pam Thomas on 2011 11 01

Hire the actuary. Then vote on it. The union lobbyist posing as legislators are never going to vote for it anyway.

Comment #15 by george pratt on 2011 11 01

In a way doing nothing might be the best thing. It guarantees complete collapse and a likely booting of the legislators.

Comment #16 by Odd Job on 2011 11 01

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