Old and unfinished business could hinder lawmakers’ efforts to improve the Rhode Island economic climate in 2014.
For the first time in several years, General Assembly leaders have begun the annual legislative session without new, high-profile initiatives like the pushes for same-sex marriage, expanded gambling or pension reform that dominated prior years.
Instead, passing a new budget appears to be the most important, and potentially most difficult, objective House Speaker Gordon D. Fox and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed will face this election year.
Not only does the state face a $100 million budget gap for the year ahead, but some of the big challenges leaders took on in previous years appear ready to resurface in potentially difficult ways.
Those issues include the historic state pension overhaul of 2011, repayment of the 38 Studios loan guarantee and raising tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge.
In both pure dollar terms and potential for political strife, the outcome of a yearlong, court-mandated, secret mediation effort over the pension overhaul, which is being challenged in court by public-sector workers, carries the highest stakes.
If union workers and state officials reach a deal to end the lawsuit by scaling back any of the pension cuts in the 2011 overhaul, lawmakers would be charged with approving it and replacing any savings lost in the budget.
But neither Fox nor Paiva Weed have promised to revisit the pension overhaul they fought hard to pass in November 2011 – and is estimated to save the state and municipalities $250 million this year alone – even if there is an agreement.
“I am proud of the reform legislation the General Assembly enacted after a great deal of study and debate in 2011,” Fox said in an email statement. “I have not been privy to the discussions in the court-ordered mediation. We are not obligated to bring an agreement before the House and without any details, it is difficult to comment further.”
Brown University political science professor Wendy Schiller described the pension case as the issue with the most potential to cause havoc in the budget.
“I think the legislative leaders are not going to reopen the entire pension legislation,” Schiller said. “Until they know what the pension-mediation proposal is, they can’t start making deals on anything else. So they may not do anything on a pension deal and may only deal with 38 Studios.”