LIVELY DEBATE: The pension debate last week drew union members opposed to the proposed changes from across the state.
PBN PHOTO/HILARY ROSENTHAL
A MORE PERFECT UNION? James Mitchell, center, a member of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, protests outside the Statehouse last week. The pension issue has drawn a line between businesses and unions.
Measured by the number of different interest groups involved, the fight over Rhode Island’s badly underfunded public-employee pension system may be unequaled in modern state politics.
Politicians and union leaders are making their cases, of course, but so are retirees, businesses, charities and the state’s certified public accountants, to name a few.
“I don’t think that there is anything comparable in terms of scope, in terms of the sheer number of people who it affects and the number of interests it has involved,” said Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University. “You see that this debate is resonating with the voters more than anything I have seen in 18 years, mostly because unions have made it about unions.”
And whether it is because unions are polarizing these days or the issue simply cuts broadly across society, the debate has made for some unusual allies and enemies.
While spearheaded by a Democratic state treasurer and independent governor, the idea of sweeping pension reform has found support from Republican and conservative groups.
Social service organizations accustomed to joining forces with public-sector unions on policy issues instead find themselves working with businesses, while the unions stand on the other side with retiree groups.
“[Gov. Lincoln D.] Chafee has always been a consistent fiscal conservative, so it is not as surprising to me that conservative groups would support the governor, but it is remarkable when you see providers of social services in the same room as the chamber of commerce,” Schiller said.
“One understands why conservatives would like it: it is about lowering taxes and attacking public-sector unions,” said June Speakman, political science professor at Roger Williams University. “Why the Democrats support it has to do with the real financial burden.”
An example of conservative interest in pension reform comes from the newly formed Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity, a free-market think tank that has released several widely disseminated papers on pensions, including one that found 3,298 retirees statewide are making more from their pensions then they did at any time while working.
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