Lookout was at the public town hall forum in Scituate village on Wednesday of last week to listen to General Treasurer Gina Raimondo present the dire facts on the pension problem and take questions from the audience. She was joined inside the 18th century Congregational Church by Democratic Representative Michael Marcello of Scituate and Ernest Almonte, the former Auditor General who is a member of her Pension Advisory Board, which is tasked with coming up with pension reform recommendations for the General Assembly to debate this fall.
It was a true town meeting session in the great American tradition, complete with a standing recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to start things off. Filling the church pews was a collection of everyday Rhode Islanders, some of them locals, but others from around the state, all of whom came out on a rainy evening to hear what the General Treasurer had to say and listen to the questions and concerns of their fellow citizens. What they heard from the panel was hardly encouraging.
Raimondo told the crowd that the state is at the breaking point and that bold action was needed. She brought up the awful situation in Central Falls, where retirees are taking a haircut on their pensions of 50 percent. “That’s not right,” she told them. She stated she wants to achieve a secure and affordable new pension system, one brought about by “fair and comprehensive” changes. She said that if the General Assembly doesn’t get pension reform right, the consequences will be devastating to all of us.
Ernie Almonte, who has been warning us about the perilous state of the pension system for years now, is an accountant by profession, and he presented some startling numbers for the crowd to digest. Regarding the numbers, Almonte said, “They’re all big and they’re all bad.” All told, the 150 or so state and municipal pensions are some $15 billion in the red in terms of meeting their commitments, he said. That comes out to $15,000 per Rhode Islander. Even bucolic Scituate, where Almonte resides, is only 24 percent funded.
The audience also heard that currently 10 cents of every tax dollar goes to the pension system. If nothing is done, that figure per tax dollar will rise to 30 cents within the next ten years. And as for state employees, who are required to pay their share into the Employees’ Retirement system of RI (ERSRI) out of every paycheck, already two-thirds of what they pay in goes to pay for the pensions of current retirees.
Certainly these numbers only made the audience members more apprehensive about what might be coming their way. Most of the audience, in fact, was made up of current and former state employees and teachers, and they voiced their many concerns as soon as they were given the floor. There was a lot of grumbling heard about the fundamental unfairness of it all; why should they have to sacrifice when they made their required payments all their working years; how come state judges never paid into the system and receive six figure pensions; a plea about how important the COLA is to getting by these days, and the inevitable challenge about the state being able to void a “contract” with its workers?
Regarding a contractual right to a pension, Raimondo said that there is no contract involved; there is statute, but statutes can be changed by law. What would happen, asked one audience member, if the state loses the litigation under way on that very issue. What would the state do if it had to giveback millions of dollars in the end? Raimondo had no clear answer on that, and none of the panelists knew immediately what to say when asked if, beyond the issue of a contractual obligation, there was a moral obligation involved. After a ruffled pause, Representative Marcello offered this: “My heart says yes. My pocketbook says no.”
It was quite a session, and there were many more pressing questions than time allowed. It’s obvious that state workers and especially retirees are really fearful and angry about the situation. Raimondo, who told the audience up front that she wished she didn’t have to tackle this issue because it should have been dealt with already, was graceful throughout, and a palpable sense of empathy filled the church interior.
Missing from the scene was the unheard, silent party to the debate. That’s the state’s taxpayers. Gina Raimondo stated directly that taxpayers will also have to sacrifice – that they will pay more. How that will be addressed is unknown at this point, because it will be the General Assembly which will make the final decisions. Could that mean that the state will have to direct a larger share of tax revenues into the system, or could it mean that they will levy something like a pension recovery tax on us? Who knows. One thing is certain, however: taxpayers and not just state employees and teachers need to start showing up at these town hall meetings and at the State House in the weeks ahead. Those who yell loudest will be the ones who get heard.