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Another year, another slate of tough challenges at the General Assembly

January 3, 2012

Amid the usual back-to-school mode of renewing fraternal ties, House Speaker Gordon Fox began the 2012 session on a lighthearted note this afternoon. Noting how he was formally elected in January 2011, Fox said being at the rostrum in the second-year of the legislative leadership cycle was a new experience for him: “I was wondering, what do we do? Do we do anything fancy? But I guess we don’t. We just get down to business — that’s the theme.”

Just how much business gets done during the 2012 session is one of the big questions hanging over the legislature.

A passel of thorny issues wait to be addressed — most notably, the 36 locally managed pensions left out of last year’s state pension overhaul, and the threat to state revenue posed by plans for three casinos and a slot parlor in Massachusetts. Given the difficulty of those two, helping Governor Chafee to close an estimated $120 million deficit might be easy by comparison.

During a brief address from the rostrum, Fox praised lawmakers for their performance during last year’s pension debate:

Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud of every one one of you that diligently came back and fought, no matter where you came down on the issue of pension reform.

I think it was a transparent process. It was as best as it was going to get under the circumstance. I think all of us came to conclusions based upon the information we had, to do what we had to do, not only for the people of Rhode Island, but also for the pensioners affected by that system. So that really became the highlight of 2011.

Fox praised lawmakers for passing an “austere budget” under the leadership of Finance Chairman Helio Melo. He noted how the General Assembly faces many issues in 2012 . It’s an election year, of course, in which some observers think the legislature will avoid controversy, steer clear of upsetting public safety unions, and make a relatively fast exit. But growing attention to the plight of Rhode Island’s struggling municipalities is also building momentum.

Fox framed the new session this way:

If there’s one theme I hope to develop is that … we can work together for the good of the people of Rhode Island — no matter where we come from, what are beliefs may be, what our perspectives may be.

Fox told me these are his top three goals for the session:

The first thing we have to do is get redistricting done. I think the next thing we have to do is deal with the municipal situation – figure out what’s going on with that – and I think we really have to put the foundation in with the casino vote that’s coming up in November.

Asked what approach he favors on the 36 locally managed pensions left out of last year’s pension overhaul, Fox said in part:

The first thing we have to do is get a report on those that are in trouble and then try to dissect that information to figure what’s causing that and what changes have to be made to make those safe, not only for the fiscal well-being of those municipalities and the taxpayers there, but also for the pensioners.

The local pensions have been the subject of previous studies. Fox noted the issue is complicated by how they were reached through collective bargaining in 24 different communities.

So it begins.

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