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Donna Perry: Be Thankful and Get Ready for 2012

Thursday, November 24, 2011


As the fatigue sets in this holiday week from the state’s protracted and consuming battle to achieve what is both a landmark yet diminished reform of the state’s pension system, all participants can be forgiven for being thankful that it’s just, well, over.

But the passage of the plan, watered down and all, should represent a jolt to the state’s community of taxpayers, from both the ordinary citizen ranks tothe business sector that their collective voice counts, resonates, and can sway major public policy when projected in an organized, sustained, and generally unified way.

The lopsided vote in both the House (57-15) and the Senate (35-2) should send a message that it’s all about clarity of message when you are trying to move a public policy mountain. The resounding messages of “we can’t afford it” and it will “devour all other spending needs” prevailed in the end and left the union opposition message of “broken promises” finding few takers in the final analysis.

By the time the unions seemed to be coming around to even the vastly understated acknowledgement that “something has to be done,” the movie was already pretty much over.

Battleground has Shifted

I recognize it’s not as simple as a pure message, and naturally there were many overt and covert political maneuvering dynamics going on in the background to help propel this forward. Also, most notably, the battleground has now firmly shifted to the courthouse and judges will determine whether there is a compelling public purpose (local government’s possible bankruptcy) to justify pension plan changes.

Despite that, the taxpayer reform side needs to not only embrace and understand the lessons of the past year, but seize the opportunity theypresent. Passage of the legislation clearly does not solve all of the state’s formidable economic problems. But it does represent a watershed achievement in major public policy and in that context, could serve as a galvanizing issue for a growing and strengthening RI taxpayer movement.

The union plan to go to court to fight the legislation and enact political revenge on the 90-plus General Assembly members who voted for the package will only serve to further isolate them politically and solidify their growing image as distanced fromnearly all elected leaders. Furthermore, how do they explain the votes to approve the plan by legislators like Teresa Tanzi of South Kingstown and Richard Morrison of Bristol (among others) who Labor pointedly backed to replace Narragansett’s David Caprio and most famously Bristol’s Doug Gablinske, in high profile primaries last time, exactly because they were regarded as labor critics and/or proponents of pension reform? Though time will tell whether those votes constitute a true diminished grip on legislators, the unions aren’t exactly forgetting their way around the statehouse building, and the political debt many reps and senators will now be told they owe as payback for their pension vote should alarm the state’s reform movement side when the 2012 session unfolds.

Unions will Fight

You have to acknowledge the union work ethic when it comes to protecting their compensation system. They work it round the clock, week in and week out, twelve months a year. They don’t advocate in seasonal spurts of activity or limited campaigns that then go dark after the victory is at hand. Neither should the taxpayer reform side. It’s useful to take a collective breath and survey the newly aligned political landscape, but it will take nothing short of a union style, fully committed, organized and funded reform side apparatus to truly build on the pension reform achievement in the coming months.One can only hope the often scattered and non-aligned reform side is at last serious, and most critically, equipped, to really embrace this.

Finally, it would be short-sighted to let Thanksgiving pass without extending a sincere thank you to all colleagues in the reform movement side for the tireless advocacy, bill tracking and testimony, and overall speaking out to urge the advancement of this critical legislation.

As for the elected leaders, yes Richard Licht, it was a team effort to a great degree! It would not have been successful if the Speaker and Senate President did not resist tremendous pressure and kept the bill on track; nor could it have happened without the Governor closing ranks and backing the bill, and the taxpayer side welcomes Chafee’s heightened push for the much needed municipal plan reform. But lastly, if not for Treasurer Raimondo’s yearlong exhaustive attention to the details, as well as the wider issue, and unwavering determination to push to the final moment, it simply would not have happened.

As we enjoy this holiday with our families and the year begins to wind down,Rhode Island, at least for the moment, is now being noted as setting a precedent for other states in a significant fiscal category. Now that is something for which we can say to our government, thanks.

Donna Perry is a Communications Consultant to RISC, RI Statewide Coalition (http://www.statewidecoalition.com)


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