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Politics as Usual: The grand pension experiement begins this week

July 26, 2011

This week, it all starts to hit the fan.
Central Falls, the state’s smallest city, is going to be the test tube for the experiment of what the hell are we going to do about pension funds we can’t afford to maintain anymore. Next to that will be the Petri dish growing a culture to determine whether bankruptcy is a solution for fiscally crippled municipalities.
The experiment is starting with the state appointed Receiver Robert Flanders as the mad scientist, putting retirees from the city’s police and fire departments under a microscope to see how they will behave when somebody tries to take away part of the pensions they have been depending on for income since they left work. Like most things viewed through the lens of a microscope, it probably isn’t going to be pretty.
Flanders has called the retirees to a meeting at Central Falls High School this week to lay out a plan for reducing pension payments as part of the plan to rescue a destitute community from financial failure.
In a letter to the retirees inviting them to the meeting (those who can’t make it in person are invited to join by telephone conference call), Flanders made the completely unveiled threat that if they and other “constituent groups” don’t make financial concession to the city, “I will have no choice but to honor my responsibilities and exercise my powers under the Fiscal Stability Act to file a petition with the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Rhode Island for bankruptcy relief under Chapter 9 of Title 11 of the United States Code.”
Nobody knows what will happen if he does that, and nobody wants to find out, either.
But Flanders is not going to be the only one closing one eye and peering into the microscope to see what is happening on the slide. General Treasurer Gina Raimondo is surely going to want to take a peek. What Flanders is looking at through the microscope, she is going to see coming at her larger than life as her summer-long series of meetings with stakeholders in the state pension programs continues, seeking ways to cut benefits in a far larger system she that sees as equally unsustainable.
Mayors like Pawtucket’s Donald Grebien, Woonsocket’s Leo Fontaine and Providence’s Angel Tavares will take a quick look into the microscope, but they may be more interested in the Petri dish, as each of their cities stumbles along carrying the burden of a population that has more needs than it has tax dollars to address them. Each of them has been forced to utter the word bankruptcy in public statements over the past few months, and this week may be their first opportunity to look that beast directly in the eyes.
Banks, bondholders and other big shots of the financial world will be watching closely from a cautious distance, carefully measuring the dimensions of the problem and extrapolating the ramifications — what they like to call the Big Picture.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the national media also showed up as well. Central Falls is what epidemiologists call a Patient Zero, the first subject to show symptoms of a disease that is starting to spread far and fast among a state, a region or a whole damn country. How we choose to deal with Central Falls’ dual pension and potential bankruptcy problems could turn out to be a model replicated in cities and states across the nation, or it could become a cautionary tale of What Not to Do.
Either way, we are probably only going to get one swing of the bat on this one. We have to knock it out of the park, anything less than that just isn’t going to be enough. This is without a doubt a Big Game, but the World Series will come in October, when the General Assembly steps up to the pension plate in major league fashion.
The discussion this week will focus on Central Falls, but there isn’t a man, woman or child in the state of Rhode Island who doesn’t have a stake in this one way or another.

* The thing about Voter ID is that both sides of the contentious and often emotional debate make way too big a deal about it.
The voter fraud it is ostensibly meant to address is an overblown bogeyman.
The burden it supposedly places on potential voters is wildly exaggerated as well.
It probably isn’t that bad an idea to make sure that people lining up to vote are who they say they are. But it probably will depress turnout a little bit among some people who will find arranging an ID too much of a hassle, especially come 2014 when a photo ID will be required. Before then, pretty much anything that has your name on it will do.
My question is: why in Rhode Island?
Requiring voters to show identification is a tactic being used around the country by Republican state legislatures and governors to suppress turnout among groups – minorities, students, the working poor – that traditionally vote Democratic.
But Rhode Island is a heavily Democratic state, and the Voter ID bill was introduced by two Democratic legislators – Woonsocket Rep. Jon Brien (OK, he is pretty Republican for a Democrat, but he does carry a “D” after his name) and Providence Sen. Harold Metts (whose liberal Democratic credentials are unquestionable, except on a few “social issues”) – and signed into law by Lincoln Chafee, an Independent (former Republican) governor who nevertheless usually bats from the left side of the plate.
So, now, requiring voters to show identification is the law of the land, for good or ill. My guess is that it will be implemented without any problem and become a non-issue in a few election cycles. It isn’t a bad law as much as it is an unnecessary one, but having unnecessary laws on the books isn’t all that healthy for a body politic.

* I can’t let the 2010 session of the General Assembly fade into history without a shout-out to Henry Shelton.
After years, probably more than a decade, of absolutely tireless, relentless effort on Henry’s part, the legislature finally passed what he always called the PIPP (Percentage of Income Payment Plan) program.
You could never get Shelton, the honcho of Pawtucket’s George Wiley Center, to stop talking about the PIPP program. Even when he had called a press conference on another issue – Food Stamps or some welfare program – he would always find a way to bring up the PIPP program.
Ask Henry what time it is, and he would tell you it was time to pass the PIPP program. Ask him about the weather and he would tell you it would be sunnier for poor people if you passed the PIPP program.
Poor health sidelined Henry for a lot of this General Assembly session, but the passage of the PIPP program can not be seen as anything but a tribute to his dogged determination in fighting on this issue.
This means that low-income utility customers will now pay a percentage of their income for their gas and electric bill, rather than the normal rates for metered usage, which was too steep for many and caused thousands to have their gas or electricity or both shut off. The percentages they pay will be on a on a sliding scale depending on their income level.
Wasn’t it nice of National Grid to give poor people a break like that? Well, no. The difference between the low-income customer’s actual usage and the amount he or she pays will be gouged out of the hides of other utility customers, residential commercial and industrial.
But if that means all Rhode Islanders will be able to keep their lights on, heat their homes and cook their food, then that is a good thing.
Good for you, Henry.

Jim Baron covers politics and the statehouse in Rhode Island for the Rhode Island Media Group. He can be reached at

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