The Politics of Pension Reform, Part 1

There is much at stake in the looming battle over pension reform: the state's fiscal future and quality of life for tens of thousands of public employees and retirees, among them. But the fight also poses all kinds of intriguing political challenges. I'll be blogging about some of them over the next couple of days. First up: a look at the political calculus for legislators deciding whether to vote for Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Governor Lincoln Chafee's tough pension reform package. One State House insider I spoke with put it well: Democratic legislators, who will determine the fate of the bill, have to decide whether they want to face a tough primary election next September or a tough general election next November. Labor sent a shiver through Smith Hill last year when it picked off several unfriendly Democratic incumbents in the September primaries. And legislators who would back pension reform have to worry about unions doing the same to them. It is a particular concern for representatives in heavily Democratic districts, where the primary is the whole ballgame. The calculus for Democrats in more conservative parts of the state, like South County, is different. Vote against pension reform, and you're practically writing the campaign flyers for your GOP opponent. The complicating factor, there, is the fundamental weakness of the state GOP. Republicans failed to capitalize on virulent anti-incumbent sentiment last election. Can they really be expected to do better this coming year, even with a sharp new chairman at the helm, in Ken McKay? Might it be safer, even in purpler districts, to take a pass on pension reform? And what of the candidates labor backed last year in the ouster of Democratic incumbents? Can these freshmen really buck labor as Governor Chafee, who also benefited from union support, has done? There are also personal ties to consider here. There are quite a few legislators who have worked as public employees or union officials or have familial ties to the public sector, as the Providence Journal's Kathy Gregg has reported. Still, in the end, most Smith Hill observers expect passage. Reform is popular with the public. There is genuine concern, in the Assembly, about the state's long-term fiscal health. And as Raimondo and Chafee have warned, spiraling pension costs could crowd out other government spending legislators care about. There are also internal State House politics in play. The House and Senate leadership are behind the bill and are expected to exert discipline, if required. Will the rank-and-file really be willing to spurn the Speaker and Senate President on the highest profile bill in memory? And there is, finally, the rockstar element. We speak, of course, of Treasurer Raimondo. Her popularity provides plenty of political cover for members who might otherwise hesitate to disappoint organized labor or the teacher who lives next door. Indeed, the unions have a major challenge ahead of them - and, long term, a political order reshuffled. More on that tomorrow.
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