EngageRI Poll: 63% in RI want ‘complete overhaul’ of pensions

Nearly two-thirds of Rhode Islanders want to see “a complete overhaul” of the state pension system, according to a newly released poll commissioned by a nonprofit that supports Treasurer Gina Raimondo’s approach to the issue.

The survey of 450 likely voters paid for by Engage Rhode Island found 73% would strongly or somewhat support pension legislation that raises the retirement age to 67; cuts the benefit earned for each year of service; freezes cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs); and reduces future COLAs at times when the pension fund “is in financial danger.”

That list captures some of the suggestions Raimondo has floated lately, including last month on WPRI 12’s “Newsmakers,” though it does not include reamortization, which would increase the number of years the state takes – and the amount of money it pays – to make up the pension fund’s current shortfall, and does not mention the possible switch to a 401k-style “hybrid” plan.

The poll showed a high level of awareness about the debate, with the vast majority of those surveyed – 84% – saying they had “heard or read about Rhode Island’s pension system recently.”

The telephone survey was conducted Sept. 7-10 by Benenson Strategy Group, the Washington-based firm that polls for President Obama’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.6 percentage points. The full cross tabulations were not provided in advance.

The results “show that Rhode Islanders are closely following the state and municipal employee pension reform debate and overwhelmingly want their state leaders to make significant reforms to the system,” Pete Brodnitz, a Benenson principal and veteran Democratic pollster, wrote in a two-page memo summarizing the results.

Asked what they wanted to see happen to the pension system, 63% of likely voters said “a complete overhaul,” 29% said “small changes,” 5% said no changes and 3% didn’t know.

Another question described the system’s funding shortfall to respondents by saying “benefits promised to retirees and active employees for time they have already worked exceeds the amount of money in the pension fund by $7 billion.” In response, 87% called that a “major problem,” while 9% called it a “minor problem” and 3% called it “not a problem at all.”

You can download Brodnitz’ two-page memo about the survey results as a PDF on WPRI.com.

Update: The National Education Association Rhode Island’s Bob Walsh isn’t surprised by some of the findings, but says others results reflect “a loaded question.”

Update #2: I asked Benenson to send me the demographic breakdown for the 450 likely voters who were interviewed for the poll so I could get WPRI 12 political analyst (and pollster) Joe Fleming’s take. He said they look good.

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