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Donna Perry: Rhode Island’s Reckless Governor

Thursday, December 06, 2012


It is getting uncomfortable to watch the recklessness in which Governor Chafee is now carrying out his governorship. Just days before opening arguments for the nationally watched, high stakes court case in which the state of Rhode Island will defend its landmark pension reform law, Governor Chafee has a new whim that needs satisfying.

It turns out the Governor has been behind closed doors in “talks” with top union leaders who now, on the eve of court, are tossing around the word “settling”, rather than take their chances on the well-crafted reform law. Despite the merits of the case, despite the fact that the law was designed to actually save a drowning system that could have left retirees with far less security than they now have, despite the fact that this law is technically Chafee’s own law, since he is the Governor who signed it, Chafee is undertaking a grossly misguided strategy to “talk” with the opposition about “settling” the case and projecting insultingly false spin that he is doing so to try and “protect the taxpayers.”

What is really at work here is that this Governor could not control his own destructive tendency of governing by impulse, and acting on politically vindictive whims and adolescent like resentments that have mired his governorship. Sadly, this court case, so critically important to the long term fiscal health of the state, is just the latest example in what is now an all too familiar pattern.

He has changed course at the eleventh hour against his own legal team, and by extension, against the taxpayers of his own state, diverting attention away from the court case so that he could inject himself into the center of the drama, and so, like a kitten at the hands of the masterful wolf, he is in “talks” with Bob Walsh and other union leaders.

It should probably not be a surprise, because after all, Chafee’s governorship has been largely about whims of the moment, and out of the mainstream pursuits (going against federal law and U.S. Attorney prosecutors to spend taxpayers’ money to protect a killer; suing a former state employee/EDC Director in connection to 38 Studios, just as examples) and far less about a strategic, consistent, stick to the roadmap style of governing. But his actions this week have the potential of causing harm to the state—and its’ taxpayers--- on a level that could be unprecedented, because it could very well result in the unraveling of the law, which is on course to save billions in coming years.

Chafee claims to be fretting about the “legal cost” if the case goes forward ring hallow. Saving communities across the state over $100 million this year in pension contributions and shaving off roughly $3 billion from the unfunded liability over two decades will surely balance out whatever legal costs the case incurs. More outrageous and troubling is the tone and personal nature of the comments made against the state Treasurer by Chafee this week in an interview to a reporter. Chafee’s comments about Gina Raimondo, the brains and strategic vision behind the historic reconstruction of the state’s pension system, reveal the depths of his adolescent like jealousy of the Treasurer’s clear ability to lead and deliver a solution to the deeply unfunded troubled pension system, and the national praise that it garnered.

A key point that seems to now elude Chafee is that the formulas in the new law saved and strengthened the system, which was headed for insolvency if the reform had not been enacted. Make no mistake about it: if the Governor’s sloppy machinations to appease union heads for his own 2014 political ambitions result in a dismantling of the law, it will be revealed over time that he worked against the best interests of the retirees, as well as the taxpayers.

There is little track record on the part of union leadership that would indicate they have ever had the taxpayers’ best interests at heart. That Chafee would now conspire with them, 48 hours before the launch of his own state’s court case to defend a more stable, fairer pension system for retirees and taxpayers alike, is a breathtaking political betrayal. Taxpayers are watching and they won’t forget.

Donna Perry is Executive Director of RISC, RI Statewide Coalition


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