Pension Reform Bait-and-Switch to Block Broader Reform

An observer of Rhode Island’s political scene needn’t be excessively cynical to be a bit disconcerted by the unity of purpose displayed toward the end of the General Assembly’s special session on pension reform.  Leading Democrats, including some who double as labor union leaders, were onboard.  The union-backed Independent governor, Lincoln Chafee, was onboard.  From the opposing camp, various good government groups were onboard, almost in unity.

Even the ostensibly neutral media joined the parade.  After an overwhelming vote passed the legislation, the Providence Journal editorial board dubbed the achievement as “Rhode Island rescued.”  An analysis by WPRI’s Ted Nesi called the bill, “an extraordinary — and unlikely — achievement for the three leaders most responsible for shepherding it through.”

Two questions arise from this sea of consensus:  Is it really plausible that the combination of budgetary crisis and strong leadership changed the legislature’s stripes so dramatically as to make it a national example of forward-thinking government?  And should we worry that the issue’s momentum carried forward catches and promises that will ultimately harm the state?

An initial answer comes in the form of the last-minute amendment creating a 5.5% “assessment” (aka “tax”) on privatized workers.

A Long-Running Union/Assembly Goal

Back in 2007, as June 15 turned into June 16, Rep. Charlene Lima (D, Cranston) slipped a midnight amendment into the budget bill that would pass before the sun came up.  The amendment created RI General Law 42-148, “Privatization of State Services,” which requires an elaborate review and appeals process before the state can use private contractors for services previously performed by unionized public employees.

The legislation made its appearance in the midst of efforts by Governor Donald Carcieri to address the state’s structural deficits through such privatization, and within a week, his efforts ended.  As Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal put it, “Bringing competition to the delivery of state services is one of the key ways Rhode Island will be able to fix its budget problems.  Unfortunately, it appears that solution is off the table now.”  The final nail came a year later, when the state Supreme Court declined to review the constitutionality of the law.

In essence, the legislation required a cost-comparison analysis that would pit the private contractor’s bid (plus all remaining inside and transition costs) against an optimistic “new cost estimate” from union workers, “reflecting any innovations that they could incorporate into the work performance standards.”  (Not that the law required them ever to implement the innovations.)  In order to win the contest, the outside vendor would have to offer “substantial” savings; in her initial legislation, Lima used the margin of 10%.  State workers and their unions could then use an appeals process to delay the contract award for months.

Fast forward to November 2011.  As the pension reform legislation moved toward stunningly smooth passage, the following language slipped into the mix, amidst a variety of “technical amendments”:

42-149-3.1. Assessment on state expenditures for non-state employee services. – Whenever a department, commission, board, council, agency or public corporation incurs expenditures through contracts or agreements by which a nongovernmental person or entity agrees to provide services which are substantially similar to and in lieu of services hereto fore provided, in whole or in part, by regular employees of the department, commission, board, council, agency or public corporation covered by chapter 36-8, those expenditures shall be subject to an assessment equal to five and one-half percent (5.5%) of the cost of the service. That assessment shall be paid to the retirement system on a quarterly basis in accordance with subsection 36-10-2(e).

Government leaders are quite open about the intention behind the new statute.  House Speaker Gordon Fox (D, Providence) has acknowledged it as an effort to prevent future governors from returning to Carcieri’s methods.  Richard Licht, director of the Department of Administration for the current governor, told WRNI’s Ian Donnis that “the purpose of it” is to “curb the state’s use of outside employees.”

Whatever “substantial savings” might have meant under Lima’s legislation, they now must overcome an additional 5.5% handicap, and as the state’s structural deficits continue, government officials will be nudged even more strongly toward tax increases and/or service reductions.

A Tax for the Pension System

The secondary effect of the 5.5% provision is, obviously, to introduce another taxpayer stream of revenue for the pension system.  The amount that state entities spend on contract employees is not readily available, but Licht puts the annual revenue to the pension system at a projected $2 million (though he admits that no thorough analysis has been performed).

In the context of the pension reform, however, dollar amounts have typically been described in terms of the amortization period.  That is, in the 25 years that it is supposed to take for the pension system to be sufficiently funded, this last-minute money grab will amount to around $50 million paid from the state’s general revenue.

Or Something More Insidious?

Whatever the dollar amounts, a key difference between this latest scheme and the Lima amendment should not be overlooked.  The definitions section of the 2007 law defines “in-house” services as those involving “in-house state programs and employees.”  Section 3 of the law explicitly begins the review process “prior to the closure, consolidation or privatization of any state facility, function or program.”

The new law is not so carefully limited.  It describes the included services as those provided by employees covered by RI General Law 36-8, which establishes the state pension system.  That system is not limited to state workers.  Indeed, subsection 36-10-2(e), which the new law cites for the process of payment, refers to state contributions to teachers’ pensions, as well as state workers’ pensions.  Depending how enthusiastically the various parties wish to press their advantage, it may turn out that the 5.5% assessment applies to contractors hired to perform any service “similar to or in lieu of” any employee in the pension system, whether employed by the state, a school district, or a municipality.

The most financially and politically significant example that comes to mind is that of charter schools.  In general, teachers in such schools are required by state law to participate in the retirement system, but mayoral academies can opt out.  If they do so, will their budgets be subjected to the 5.5% assessment?  Given the fact that the last-minute amendment was not thoroughly vetted before submittal nor thoroughly debated before being voted into law, that may very well be the case.

Pension Reform as a Barrier to Broader Reform

I’ve been arguing against General Treasurer Gina Raimondo’s pension reform on the grounds that it (1) is insufficient by several orders of magnitude to solve the entire problem, and (2) puts future adjustments and reforms fully in the hands of the state Retirement Board, with seven of 15 members appointed directly by unions.  Even when agreeing, supporters of the legislation have proclaimed it as a huge step in the right direction.

The privatization tax may be an early indication that crisis and leadership only yielded a quarter step forward, soon to be followed by four steps back.  At the very least, the state has one less tool to rein in its structural deficits, and the restriction may apply to any other government entity in Rhode Island that participates in the pension system but wishes to explore privatization.

The scope may broaden even more (and more definitively) if reform of municipal pensions brings additional public employees within reach of General Law 36-8.  And reformers would do well also to ponder the relevance of this latest General Assembly bait-and-switch while advocating for another of their favorite notions:  consolidation.  Bringing local services under the purview of state employees will virtually ensure that they remain forever “in house.”

Beyond all of this speculation is the likelihood that the amendment was just the first surprise that helped buy such broad assent and smooth passage for the bill.  It isn’t cynical at all to observe that, whatever else it might be, Rhode Island’s entrenched establishment is sufficiently savvy to see when basic math threatens the application of reality to unrealistic benefits and to make the best of reforms… and with a vengeance.

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