RI House approves scaled-back bill to expand disability pension criteria

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Rhode Island House of Representatives on Tuesday approved a bill that would expand the legal grounds for public-safety officers to receive disability pensions, after revising it to reduce the cost to taxpayers.

The bill was approved 53-8, with Republican Reps. Bobby Nardolillo and Brian Newberry joining most of their Democratic colleagues in supporting it. No Democrat voted against the bill, though 14 of them were absent for the vote.

The bill, sponsored by Providence Rep. Joe Almeida, would allow an “injury or illness” sustained on duty – rather than just an “injury,” the current wording – to be cause for granting a tax-free accidental disability pension to a police officer or firefighter. The original bill would also have increased how much time officers have to file a disability claim from 18 months after the incident to 36 months.

Almeida’s bill had the support of police and firefighter union leaders, who argued it is a relatively minor change. But municipal leaders and business lobbyists argued it would increase costs for taxpayers and further stress already underfunded municipal retirement systems.

An analysis by General Treasurer Seth Magaziner’s officer estimated the original version of the Almeida bill would cost cities and towns $11.9 million over the next five years, largely because public-safety officers would remain on injured-on-duty status longer due to the extension of time to file a claim.

The amended bill – which was passed out of committee just hours before the full House voted on it – dropped the extension of time and only added the “illness” wording. According to Magaziner’s office, “that change alone would have an immaterial impact on the pension system.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the same bill with the same amendments, sponsored by Smithfield Sen. Stephen Archambault, earlier in the day. The full Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday.

The Almeida bill was one of two measures on disability pensions that were briefly scheduled for a House Labor vote last week but quickly pulled from the calendar; the new vote was announced just hours before it is scheduled to take place.

According to an email sent to House lawmakers and shared by Rep. Jared Nunes, Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has told them that bills passed out of committee Tuesday will be immediately scheduled for a vote before the full House later in the evening. Assembly leaders are racing to finish their annual session this week.

A vote on the other bill postponed last week – North Kingstown Democrat Robert Craven’s proposal to give disability pensions for hypertension – has not yet been rescheduled. Magaziner’s office said the Craven bill would increase municipal pension costs by $7.1 million a year, and if passed in conjunction with the original Almeida bill, the latter’s cost would jump to $19.9 million over five years.

R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell lambasted Mattiello for considering the two bills, describing it as “a huge bait and switch.”

“Less than a week after passing legislation to reduce the car tax, Speaker Mattiello and the House of Representatives are willing to pass legislation to curry favor with special interest groups and dramatically raise property taxes,” Bell said, adding: “The taxpayers pay less car taxes, but will pay more property taxes.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook