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By Ted Nesi
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – It looks like the much-anticipated pension settlement may be back on track.
At least for now.
The U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), which is handling the talks between the state and the unions in the pension suit, sent a new media advisory midday Thursday announcing that a press conference will be held Friday, Feb. 14 at 4:15 p.m. in the Department of Administration building in Providence “to report on the ongoing court-ordered mediation to resolve pension litigation.”
The FMCS said the Valentine’s Day press conference is being called at “the joint request of attorneys for the state and for Rhode Island public employee unions and retirees.” The timing means the announcement is now set to happen late in the afternoon on the Friday before a long weekend.
It’s the latest twist during a surprisingly dramatic week on the pension front, which kicked off Monday when the FMCS scheduled a press conference for Wednesday to announce a settlement and senior lawmakers were briefed about the proposal.
But the settlement apparently hit an undisclosed snag sometime on Tuesday, because early Wednesday morning the FMCS abruptly cancelled the press conference without explanation. R.I. Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter then moved to set a Sept. 15 start date for the pension lawsuit to go to trial.
The announcement of Friday’s press conference is the second sign a settlement may be back on track after a shambolic couple of days. The first came midday Wednesday, when the State Retirement Board scheduled a special meeting for Friday at 1 p.m. to discuss and possibly approve a “proposed settlement,” according to its agenda; that action had originally been expected Wednesday morning before an unexplained change of plans.
“There is no agreement now,” Treasurer Gina Raimondo told reporters Wednesday after the Retirement Board meeting. “We’re going to keep working.”
J. Michael Downey, president of Rhode Island’s largest public-employees union, Council 94, told his members in a message sent after Wednesday morning’s events: “While the trial is scheduled to begin in September, I wanted you to know that the court-ordered mediation process is continuing today as both sides work towards a settlement agreement. The court-mandated confidentiality order remains in place.”
House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, who were briefed Monday afternoon about the potential pension settlement, declined to provide details when they left the governor’s office. Lawmakers, who aren’t involved in the settlement talks but will need to approve any deal, have expressed serious reservations about taking up the pension issue once again.
Fox said Wednesday there’s no guarantee the General Assembly will vote on a proposed settlement. “I reserve the right to recommend, if I think that it’s not fair or it creates too many problems, to say that, no, I don’t think we should take this up,” he said, adding: “I’m not leaning either way. I’m letting the process take its course.”
The pension reform law passed in 2011 slashed Rhode Island’s unfunded pension liability from $7.3 billion to $4.3 billion, mainly by freezing pensioners’ annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for two decades. The law also moved most workers into a new hybrid pension plan that combines a smaller defined benefit with a 401k-style defined-contribution account, raised the minimum retirement age and tied COLAs to the pension fund’s investment returns.
Unions filed suit, claiming the law was unconstitutional, which led Judge Taft-Carter to order the closed-door talks more than a year ago. She also issued the gag order, which has blocked the two sides from discussing anything publicly.