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Travis Rowley: “Hope and Change” for “Pension Reform”

Saturday, October 15, 2011


For the past several months public union bosses have braced themselves for the fixes that are coming to the state pension system. In disservice to their members – and to the detriment of their pensions – this is a moment that labor leaders have long resisted.

In 2006, Executive Director of the NEARI Bob Walsh mocked his political opponents’ longstanding warnings over a potential pension collapse after viewing a “Pension Reform Now” rally at the State House, where “most of the faces in the crowd were Republican” (Providence Journal). Walsh commented to reporters, “Republicans support pension reform. Well, yeah. Where's the story? Where's the news?"

The “news” was that Walsh’s union members were now in an even worse position than they were in 2003, when Walsh was defying a previous attempt to right the state’s pension system, this time by Republican Governor Don Carcieri. “This is really not a negotiable issue for us,” Walsh said at the time.

The day of reckoning for the reckless disregard public union bosses have long expressed for the severe underfunding of their members’ pensions is finally upon them.

Actually, it’s upon all Rhode Islanders.

It seems, however, that only the unions have been suffering from anxiety – making gestures of lawsuits toward the taxpayers, and creating propaganda videos that accept no blame, offer no solutions, and object to the most modest of pension changes.

There has been much less restiveness from taxpayer groups and other Republican-types in regards to what the details of Treasurer Gina Raimondo’s pension reform proposal might be – a proposal that she insists must be accepted in its totality. After years of warning of the looming fiscal breakdown, perhaps they’re just glad that union-Democrats have finally acknowledged the problem.

They’ll Sue. They’ll Sue. They’ll Sue.

Perhaps wisely, Treasurer Raimondo and Governor Chafee have kept the details of their final solution close to them, only releasing hints as to what the public can expect. Their articulation hasn’t been as confusing and formless as the Democrats’ “Occupy” movement. But vague enough to be annoying.

Chafee’s and Raimondo’s reserved responses to weeks of probing questions are cause enough for taxpayers to be uneasy over what will soon be proposed. With dozens of Democratic legislators already in their pocket, the public unions have been enhancing their negotiating position by simply becoming the squeakiest wheel. Their threats of “litigation” are a reminder of a complaint that a spokesman for New York’s private unions recently made about his public union counterparts: “They won’t take concessions. They’ll sue. They’ll sue. They’ll sue.”

Meanwhile, in contrast to the unions’ thuggery and negotiating prowess, conservative activists have ranged from Gina Raimondo’s silent back-patters to her most aggressive cheerleaders.

Who is Raimondo more pressured to appease?

The answer is simple when one considers the fact that Raimondo has made it explicitly clear that her worst fear is that “the temptation of the General Assembly might be to just water down the bill overall…f you water it down too much it won't work and then we will be back here in a few years."

With Raimondo insisting that her proposal must not be altered, what are the chances of her offering up a plan that the unions will most likely consider to be inequitable?

Considering it crucial that her proposal be fully embraced, Raimondo is most certainly swayed by two historical factors: The taxpayers have always been the biggest pushovers. And the unions will sue.

Torturing the Taxpayers. Again.

Just weeks ago on A Lively Experiment, Raimondo did sympathize with Rhode Island’s overstretched taxpayers, saying, “The taxpayers now are baring quite a lot of the burden. Since 2003 taxpayer contributions into the pension have doubled…It would be my intention to not have taxpayers [do] much more than they’re doing now.” But she also said, “We are looking for everybody to participate. Young employees, active employees, retirees, taxpayers.” And when asked point-blank if taxpayers would “have to take something of a hit,” Raimondo responded, “Absolutely.” Governor Chafee seconded Raimondo’s sentiment more recently: "My preference is to make sure that everybody that's involved shares the sacrifice…retirees, existing employees and taxpayers.''

Conservatives, what will be the price of your decency, your patience, and your cooperation? Will Rhode Island taxpayers – your sacred constituency – be forced to help bailout a bankrupt pension system that they have not only been forced to fund against their will, but also one that many of them pointed to for decades as an impending disaster, only to have public union bosses smear them as “wealthy” and “greedy” and “anti-worker,” denigrations that helped them organize public employees into a Democratic voting bloc that would secure the collapse?

In 2008, liberals swooned over the empty slogan “Hope and Change” (and we all know how that worked out). Have conservatives made a similar mistake by hastily celebrating such a nebulous term as “pension reform?”

Travis Rowley is chairman of the RI Young Republicans, and a consultant for the Barry Hinckley Campaign for US Senate.


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