Chafee out on a limb again

Governor Lincoln Chafee has a habit of going out on a limb. Last year, he pushed for a doomed expansion of the state sales tax. His refusal to turn over murder suspect Jason Pleau to federal authorities, fearing they might seek the death penalty, seemed like a legal longshot from the start. And his stubborn insistence on calling the State House spruce a "holiday tree" - two years running now - remains deeply unpopular.

Now, his push to negotiate a settlement on the big lawsuit at the center of Rhode Island politics - public employee unions are seeking to overturn last year's historic pension reform, passed by the General Assembly and signed by Chafee - looks like more of the same.

As Chafee acknowledges, the General Assembly would have to sign off on any agreement he forges with union officials. And it's been clear, from the outset, that a legislature which expended significant political capital passing the bill last year was unlikely to back down before the courts issued a ruling. Speaker of the House Gordon Fox has confirmed the obvious with a statement today.

And Fox's statement came long after the architect of the overhaul, popular Treasurer Gina Raimondo, made it clear she strongly opposes a settlement. While she has no vote in the legislature, as Chafee has noted, it would be folly to underestimate her pull in the chamber on this issue. Indeed, it was the political cover she provided - as much as any other factor - that made passage of pension reform possible in the first place.

Bob Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association - Rhode Island teachers union and a central figure in the lawsuit, lays out a compelling enough case for a settlement. The unions, he says, have a strong case that the state broke an implied contract with its workers. And while the state can argue that it did so for a compelling purpose - righting the fiscal ship - the union can argue that it didn't take the most "reasonable" course available (i.e. the least injurious to workers who have been depending, for decades in some cases, on a certain pension).

Indeed, Walsh maintains, if the unions prevail it'll likely be on this "reasonableness" ground and all the players will be back on Smith Hill trying to craft a new agreement - an agreement similar to the deal the unions are attempting to forge with Governor Chafee right now. Why not skip all the costly litigation?, he asks.

Well, pension reform advocates are confident of a court victory. But there's another reason to let the legal process play itself out: if a courtroom loss simply means a return to Smith Hill to develop a new reform package, as Walsh suggests, there's little incentive to negotiate now. Sure, you lose some money to legal fees. But otherwise, you wind up with the same outcome.

Letting the court case run its course is, essentially, a no-lose proposition.

It's the sort of political calculation Chafee either doesn't make or brushes aside in pursuit of principle. Either way, he winds up out on a limb. Either way, he loses.

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