Pension reform draws competing rallies

Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 26, 2011

With a new pension reform bill now under consideration in the General Assembly, competing groups converged on the State House rotunda Wednesday to make their voices heard.

The public employee union opposing the bill — Council 94 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — and EngageRI, an advocacy group backing the legislation, held back-to-back rallies. Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo spoke at the EngageRI rally.

Current Rhode Island state-run and municipal pension plans have a combined shortfall of about $9.4 billion.

As the joint House and Senate Finance Committees reached the end of the first of three hearings on the legislation yesterday, Rhode Island Council 94 rallied in opposition to the bill. The union is denouncing the new proposal because it will “eliminate the retirement security of tens of thousands of Rhode Island working men and women,” according to the union’s press release issued yesterday.

“It’s unfair to everyone,” Rhode Island Council 94’s State Vice President Lynn Loveday told The Herald. “The retirees take a certain hit, and (the state government) is asking people at the worst time in history to take a risk,” she said. Loveday added that she represents over 4,000 state workers, all opposed to pension reform.

The proposed legislation, the Rhode Island Retirement Security Act of 2011, would freeze cost-of-living-adjustments and reduce guaranteed benefits paid to pensioners by placing state workers in a new hybrid plan. The plan would combine a reduced defined contribution payment — a defined benefit account similar to a 401(k) — and regular Social Security payments. All state employees, teachers and municipal employees excluding police and fire departments would be enrolled in the plan, which will also increase the retirement age from 62 to 67 for workers born during or after 1960.

Joe Cassady, a teacher at Portsmouth High School, stressed that reform is a drastic step.

As a teacher, he said he felt the legislation would significantly reduce his pension benefits. “I want them to work with us, not around us,” he said.

EngageRI held its own rally shortly after Rhode Island Council 94’s. With roughly 150 people, EngageRI outmuscled the last remnants of the union rally. Holding signs featuring slogans such as “Save R.I.,” “Fix my Future” and “Youth for Pension Reform,” ralliers called for immediate pension reform for the sake of all Rhode Islanders. EngageRI supports pension reform in order to sustain services, such as education and transportation, according to its website.

Chafee made an appearance and asked EngageRI ralliers for their support to pass the bill. Ralliers greeted Raimondo, who spoke after Chafee, with thunderous applause. She expressed her gratitude to every person at the rally for “coming for the future of the state.”

“We owe it to you to pass this bill and provide the action you demanded,” Raimondo said. “We will rally to the finish line until this bill is passed.”

About 15 Brown Democrats attended the EngageRI rally. Shawn Patterson ’12, the club’s president, said failing to address the pension shortfall could have consequences for all Rhode Islanders.

“Social services will be cut, and taxes will be raised,” he said. “Something needs to be done.”