RI pension mediation ends; trial set for Sept

The Rhode Island State House.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s landmark pension law is heading to trial.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo said Friday the state and its major labor unions have ended court-ordered mediation talks after eligible police officers voted to reject a proposed pension settlement. The two sides are now set to head to trial Sept. 15.

“Due to a small group of union members the settlement agreement has failed and the mediation process has ended,” Chafee and Raimondo said in a joint statement. “We find this disappointing and frustrating.”

Preliminary voting results released Monday showed 61% of eligible police officers opposed the settlement, which was unveiled in February by state and union leaders. The five other plaintiff groups voted to support the settlement, but the original rules said that the deal would be scuttled if any of the groups voted no.

The police were by far the smallest group among the six blocs, accounting for just 417 of the 23,624 eligible voters, according to the union plaintiffs who are backing the settlement.

The settlement sought to end a legal challenge to the pension overhaul, enacted in November 2011, by increasing some benefits for workers and retirees in exchange for locking in roughly 94% of the original law’s $4-billion savings.

“The plaintiffs abided by the judge’s order to explore a path to a new settlement agreement, but the state decided it would rather pursue costly and drawn out litigation rather than reach a reasonable agreement to guarantee stability and predictability to the pension system,” Ray Sullivan, spokesperson for the plaintiff groups, said in a statement.

“We are now prepared to take the necessary steps in proceeding to trial,” Sullivan said.

A first round of voting by 23,624 union and retiree plaintiffs on whether to move forward with the settlement took place by mail from mid-March to April 3, and the ballots were tabulated starting Friday by a private firm, ProMail Etc.

R.I. Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter ordered the two sides back into mediation Monday to see if they could salvage the settlement after they informed her of the voting results.

Taft-Carter’s decision to order renewed mediation suggests she wants to keep the settlement process alive if she can in spite of the police’s rejection. The two sides were ordered to report back to her on Monday about their progress.

The settlement asked the General Assembly to approve a 5% increase in Rhode Island’s unfunded pension liability for state employees, teachers and some municipal workers – from $4.8 billion to $5.05 billion – in order to get the unions to drop their lawsuits over the 2011 pension law, as well as suits challenging previous pension changes passed in 2009 and 2010.

Ted Nesi contributed to this report.

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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