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Travis Rowley: Are Future Pension Payments “Property”?

Saturday, May 28, 2011


After two decades of Republican admonitions regarding Rhode Island’s shaky pension system, the motions currently being made by some elected Democrats finally seem to be tinged with some urgency. After waiting years to react to the warnings, however, the attempt at reform now seems to be analogous to a last-second field goal. A long, long field goal – being kicked by a team that played poorly and recklessly the entire game, but is suddenly presented with a chance at redemption.

While everyone prays for a positive outcome, one potential roadblock to pension reform is being continually brought up for discussion:  Do public employees have a property right to their pensions? Is it even legal to make adjustments to the benefits system?

Absent a law degree, this writer will have to admit to some insecurity when predicting how a court may answer this question. But even those with law degrees differ over the issue. So, whatever.

This pension crisis is only a crisis precisely because the pension is “unfunded.” The money just isn’t there. Any court ruling that confirms a property right to money that is paid from an empty pension fund would be a decision that says that government workers have a right to other people’s property.

Inconceivable, right?

Sure, one could make the case that Rhode Island’s government employees were lied to, and robbed by, union leaders and Democratic politicians; that they are victims of the union-Democrat alliance. But how does that give them a right to more of your money? It’s difficult to recall a similar argument being made for the victims of Bernie Madoff.

State Employees' Lawsuit

It is probably pertinent to point out that this is the precise ruling – legally feasible or not – that labor leaders are cheering for. State employee unions have already filed a pending lawsuit against the state for minor pension changes that were made in 2009 and 2010 by the General Assembly, claiming that even these tiny cutbacks amounted to unjust “takings” of government employees’ property.

Executive Director of Council 94 Ken DeLorenzo blasted, “We believe the government can’t take away your life or your property.”

Unless you’re a taxpayer. In that case, the public unions are all for it.

The situation is dire. As absurd as a court ruling in favor of the unions might sound, more ridiculous decisions have been made by the judiciary. Besides, what if the reigning judge is a Democratic partisan who sympathizes with public unions? Or perhaps owes his entire political career to organized labor? Is that so unthinkable here in Rhode Island?

The kick is up. The ball is in the air, and heading toward the goalpost. Rhode Islanders are on their feet, waiting to see if the unions will, once again, provide the gust of wind that sends Democrats wide to the left.

- Travis Rowley (TravisRowley.com) is chairman of the RI Young Republicans and a consultant for the Barry Hinckley Campaign for US Senate.

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