Talking Politics

Despite overhauls, pensions remain a hot topic in R.I.

By Ian Donnis
Posted 5/2/23

STORY OF THE WEEK: Twelve years after Gina Raimondo spearheaded what once seemed an improbable overhaul of the state pension system, pensions remain a hot topic in Rhode Island. As the ProJo’s …

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Talking Politics

Despite overhauls, pensions remain a hot topic in R.I.


STORY OF THE WEEK: Twelve years after Gina Raimondo spearheaded what once seemed an improbable overhaul of the state pension system, pensions remain a hot topic in Rhode Island. As the ProJo’s Kathy Gregg recently reported, retirees remain angry about the loss of an annual cost of living adjustment and the opaque nature of some pension investments. The funded ratio for the pension (encompassing state workers and teachers) has improved just slightly over the last 10 years, from 57.8% to 60.4%, according to General Treasurer James Diossa’s office. During an interview on Political Roundtable, Diossa said the pension is projected to be 80% funded by 2031, a level that would allow the resumption of annual pensions. For now, Diossa is championing a bill that would divert $15 million from the state general fund to give retirees a one-time payment of $500. While Rhode Islanders who are scraping by would welcome the same kind of benefit, Diossa said the lump sum is justified based on the experience of retirees and how the pension fund is gaining more stability. When it comes to the quadrupling cost of some pension investments made before he became treasurer – and how documents that would offer explanatory details are shielded from public view – Diossa cited how the documents are considered to include proprietary information. When it comes to municipal pension funds in Rhode Island, some of which have little of the money needed to fund long-term obligations, Diossa said he’s talked with his team about “reaching out to these communities, providing some expert support, and also asking if there's any conversations to be had about joining our state pension system.” Elsewhere, things remain challenging. There are no easy solutions for the Providence pension, which has only about a quarter of the money needed to meet its long-term obligations, and steadily consumes millions more of the city’s revenue each year. Then there’s the colossal amount due by the state and municipalities for retiree healthcare, known as OPEB, or other post-employment benefits. Since the Fed’s era of super-low interest rates is over, it’s unclear how the stock market will perform in the future. That’s no small concern for the future of pensions in Rhode Island.

 HOUSING: Another housing report? That was the reaction of some when the Rhode Island Foundation released a study on the state’s housing crisis earlier last week. On the plus side, the report is very detailed and offers a lengthy series of policy recommendations. Jennifer Hawkins of One Neighborhood Builders, which has had success developing affordable housing in such communities as Providence and East Providence, offered this conclusion via Twitter: “This report is a step in the right direction, but it’s up to the Housing Department to turn this report, and its myriad of helpful regulatory and financing policy recommendations - into action.” 

 GENERAL ASSEMBLY: An iron rule of politics is that legislative leaders don’t call a vote without the support to pass a bill. Sure enough, Majority Whip Katherine Kazarian’s Equality in Abortion Coverage Act – which would require the state to pay for abortion care for those under Medicaid or the state employee health plan – cleared the House last week on a 49-to-24 vote. So much for the conventional wisdom that the larger chamber was unlikely to support the measure (although more than half of the “no” votes – 15 – were by Democrats). Across the rotunda, the status of a companion bill in the Senate remains opaque for now, with spokesman Greg Pare saying there is no timetable for committee consideration.

 CULTURE WARS: Via my colleague Alex Nunes: eight state representatives – seven of them Democrats – introduced a bill this week “that would hold public or charter school libraries liable for distributing ‘indecent’ material to minors – and add ‘any cartoon, drawing, comic book, print, depiction or animation’ to a list of explicit materials.” One sponsor, Rep. Sam Azzinaro (D-Westerly), said he wants to see it applied to any library. “It's a concern,” Azzinaro said. “I mean, it's two men having sex with each other, or two women having sex with each other, a man and a woman having sex – that's all part of life, but I don't think we should be exposing it to these kids.” RI ACLU director Steve Brown said the legislation could have “an enormous” chilling effect: “This makes the stocking of books that might fall under this very broad definition a very serious criminal offense. The clear impact would be to deter many librarians from purchasing legitimate books for the school library that young students might want to read and should have the right to read.”

SUNLIGHT: An advisory opinion this week from Attorney General Peter Neronha made clear that public bodies cannot restrict requests under the state’s Access to Public Records Act to methods that are not easily accessible for the public (or reporters). In other words, insisting that requests be made by outdated fax technology is no longer acceptable. As the advisory states, “Use of email and/or an electronic portal to accept records requests conforms with the purpose of the APRA and promotes the important principles behind the APRA, including increased transparency and government accountability.”

 CITY HAUL: The long-running lack of municipal revenue reared its head when Providence Mayor Brett Smiley presented his first budget this week. Smiley has won favor with a series of staff picks, and his “Back to Basics” pledge resonated with voters last year. If a tax hike is deemed necessary, mayors typically try to rip off the bandage in their first year in office, hoping that it will recede in voters’ memory with the passage of time. Smiley’s spending plan raises taxes for homeowners while lowering the commercial tax rate. In his remarks, the mayor described his spending plan as a course correction: “When I took office, I took a serious look at every facet of the City’s spending and what I found was clear: our current system was not sustainable. The proposed changes would rebalance the City’s tax rates, refocus the use of federal dollars and prepare us for a possible recession.” As my colleague Olivia Ebertz reports, Smiley’s budget banks on $7 million in expanded payments from nonprofit institutions, includes a raise for municipal employees and increases spending on public safety.

ALTERNATIVE POLITICS: No Labels hasn’t made much of a splash since the group was founded in 2010. Now, though, the D.C.-based organization has the irritated attention of Democrats and Republicans, since it’s seen as playing a potential spoiler role in next year’s presidential election. So far, No Labels is on the ballot in Arizona, Alaska, Oregon and Colorado, leading to consternation among the two major parties. With both President Biden and Donald Trump facing considerable disfavor, the thinking is that No Labels might cue up someone more palatable. Gary Sasse, the former state official and longtime former head of RIPEC, is among the top boosters of No Labels in Rhode Island. He tells me No Labels is pursuing a nationwide ballot access effort, “which will enable the nomination of a fifty-state independent unity presidential ticket in case both parties nominate candidates that the vast majority of Americans believe cannot get the job done. This initiative should be viewed as an insurance policy. If one or both parties recognize the growing voice of the commonsense majority, and nominate candidates running on realistic problem-solving platforms, there may be no compelling need for the No Labels Unity Ticket. However, No Labels believes we must be prepared for all potential contingencies.”

WARPING REALITY: Give a listen to this interview with Providence-based author Abraham Josephine Riesman about her new biography, “Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmasking of America.” Excerpt: “I think the amount of wrestling that Donald Trump has consumed should not be underestimated. We have people on the record going back to the 1950s, saying, Yeah, me and Donnie Trump used to watch wrestling together. I don't know how often he watches Raw or Smackdown. But he has an enormous amount of respect for Vince. Basically, I think Trump learned one other big thing, which is he learned how to work a rowdy crowd. And I just don't think he'd had that kind of experience before. But you watch him do it now. And you're like, it's instantly recognizable as his rally style.”


TAKES OF THE WEEK: A mix of views from various Rhode Islanders. 

RI House GOP Leader MIKE CHIPPENDALE of Foster: This month Rhode Islanders caught a glimpse of what is possible when dry, unhealthy forests meet with a source of ignition – they burn. For years, my Republican colleagues and I have worked to draw attention to this impending danger, and in one of the wettest months of the year, almost 900 acres burned in multiple fires. We should all be concerned about what may happen in the dry, dog days of August. There is no magic wand to solve the decades of neglect in our forests, but there are measures that can be taken to mitigate the risks. They include proper forestry management, and supporting the organizations that support our environment. A great place to start is funding the RI Conservation Commission and the three districts they manage by supporting the bipartisan resolution to allocate $180,000 to these groups. I am hopeful that my colleagues will see the benefit of this investment and act accordingly when the time comes.

ADAM S. MYERS, professor of political science at Providence College: A rematch between President Biden and former President Trump in 2024, which is looking increasingly likely at this point, would be a nearly unprecedented event in American political history. Only once before – in 1892, when former President Grover Cleveland defeated current President Benjamin Harrison – has an incumbent president faced off against a former president whom the current president had previously beaten. Because the modern era features no election that would be comparable to a Biden-Trump rematch, we have no way of knowing what the electoral dynamics in such a race would be. Generally speaking, a presidential election is fought against the backdrop of the incumbent's record in office: his popularity, the condition of the economy over his time in office, and so forth. But in a Trump-Biden race, voters would be forced to choose between two presidents with two well-known records. My best guess is that, when faced with these competing records, Americans will make their 2024 voting decisions based on what political scientists call "negative partisanship": the modern-day tendency to align politically based on negative affect toward a political party rather than positivity toward the other. In other words, Americans will be voting for the candidate they dislike the least, not the one they like the most.

MARCELA BETANCUR, director of the Latino Policy Institute, (which is about to become an independent organization): Rhode Island's Latino population faces a range of critical issues that must be addressed for the progress and wellbeing of the entire state. These challenges include unequal access to healthcare, limited affordable housing options, educational disparities, and language and cultural barriers that make it difficult for Latinos to access resources. It's essential to recognize that the Latino community is not a monolith, and different subgroups have unique cultural needs that must be considered. To address these challenges and create a more inclusive and equitable society, we need tailored solutions that center the true voices and lived experiences of Rhode Island's diverse Latino population. This requires collaborative efforts across sectors, including government, community organizations, and businesses, to create sustainable, community-driven solutions. By investing in the Latino community and working together to bridge the gaps, Rhode Island can ensure a brighter future for all its residents. 

ANDY BOARDMAN, Policy analyst at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy: Last week’s tax deadline reminds us that most state and local tax codes are upside-down, asking less of the rich than the poor. Massachusetts voters addressed this challenge recently, approving an added “millionaires’ tax” on personal income above the seven-figure mark. That change has some speculating whether Rhode Island stands to gain from an influx of Bay Staters fleeing for lower-tax pastures — after all, R.I.’s six percent top marginal tax rate contrasts with the new nine percent rate across the border. But I wouldn’t bet on it. High-earners are less mobile than often assumed, making an all-out exodus unlikely. And the new tax means an extra billion dollars a year to invest in public education and infrastructure, two key drivers of quality of life and economic growth. Don’t be shocked if Massachusetts’ tack toward a more balanced tax code proves to be a smart economic choice, too.

 KICKER: Tucker Carlson, cut loose this week by Fox News, went to prep school in Middletown. Although Carlson was for years one of the top attractions at Fox, he’s been something of a chameleon throughout his career. As Politico’s Jack Shafer wrote in March, “Carlson, who has long defended and promoted Trump, as well as advised him on national security issues, has never been a genuine Trumpie, he has just played the role on TV. His support of Trump and many Trump-adjacent issues has been one of convenience, and when not a matter of convenience, a measure of his fear of Trump.” 


Ian Donnis can be reached at

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.