On Politics

Mediating the pension overhaul — and what it means for 2014

The court-ordered pension mediation set to begin this month will take place against an intensifying political backdrop: the early stage of the 2014 gubernatorial race. State Treasurer Gina Raimondo says politics can remain separate and apart from the mediation process.

During a wide-ranging interview set for broadcast Thursday morning on RIPR, Raimondo pointed to the pension overhaul passed into law in 2011 as an example of policy-making in the public interest. 

Raimondo, an expected gubernatorial candidate in 2014, favored litigating the pension case before Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter last month ordered mediation. The treasurer pledges a good-fath effort, and says the 2011 pension overhaul shows that political considerations need not enter into the court-ordered mediation: 

“I’m so proud of the work the General Assembly did, and I believe the reason that whole process — which was transparent and many months long — was successful is because, by and large, people did leave politics aside. You know, they acted out of interest to protect all Rhode Islanders and to protect peoples’ pensions.

“I’m confident that the great work that led to this reform that has made Rhode Island a national leader in the regard — Rhode Island is now known as the state that put politics aside to do the right thing for the people. And I think we’re going to stay on that path.” 

It’s really not accurate, though, to say politics wasn’t a key part of the 2011 pension overhaul; One can no sooner take politics out of the Statehouse than oxygen. Thanks in large part to Raimondo’s skillful use of the bully pulpit, the political cost of voting against the overhaul became greater than the cost of voting for it.

When out of town reporters and others talk about the supposedly apolitical nature of the reform, what they should have said  is how the overhaul’s promoters tried to not make it personal.

Bringing the issue into the present, the court-ordered pension mediation could have big political consequences for 2014. What those consequences are depend on what emerges.

Governor Lincoln Chafee received key public-sector union support when he won election in 2010. In the time before mediation was ordered by Judge Taft-Carter, Chafee was a characteristically early supporter of negotiating with labor. 

Neither Chafee nor Raimondo would comment on what specific criteria they’ll use in assessing whether to support a possible settlement.

If a settlement emerges that preserves the majority of savings from the pension overhaul while buying labor peace, Chafee might be inclined to hail that a victory. Raimondo could potentially call it a watering-down of a law approved for the benefit of taxpayers.

The big question, of course, is what — if anything — comes out of mediation.