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Parsing Winners and Losers in the Pension Battle

We've got a pretty good sense, now, for what the pension bill will look like when it comes up for a vote. And most observers expect it to pass. So how did the key players fare in Smith Hill's battle royale? An initial look:

  • Gina Raimondo seems a clear winner, here. This bill was her baby. She got loads of local and national press for it. And as Ted Nesi over at WPRI points out, the amended version of the bill - assuming no more major changes - looks a lot like the original measure she put forward. Finding a second act in the treasurer's office, with its relatively narrow portfolio, will be difficult. But she's done quite well with her first. Slashing pensions and angering the unions could have left her damaged goods. Instead, she seems to have reaped a windfall - in terms of reputation and campaign cash. That, along with the high marks Providence Mayor Angel Taveras got for tackling Providence's fiscal woes head on, demonstrate the political benefits of decisive action in the midst of crisis.
  • Lincoln Chafee loses, for the most part. He gets to sign a comprehensive pension reform bill. But the bill is widely seen as Raimondo's. And his push to tack municipal pension reform onto Raimondo's state pension reform measure - a move viewed by some on Smith Hill as a play for relevance - looks destined to fail. The loss, on top of Chafee's sales tax and same-sex marriage flops, are building a reputation for ineffectiveness that will be hard to shake. And it could get worse. Chafee is now insisting that he'll push for municipal pension reform next session and that would seem an uphill battle. All that, and he's managed to anger some key constituencies - not the least of them, organized labor - along the way. Give Chafee credit for this, though: he's picked some tough fights with little regard for poll or political constraint.
  • Organized labor did not fare all that well, here. The unions watched helplessly as Raimondo set the terms of the debate at the outset. And they were unable to convert their crucial election support for Chafee into a Smith Hill blockade. Liberal allies in the General Assembly, meanwhile, seem likely to support major pension reform, fearful that rising pension costs will cannibalize social services, education, and other progressive concerns. All that said, this was a tough egg to crack - a poorly funded pension plan, in a down economy, with a strong adversary in Raimondo. And once the bill landed on Smith Hill, the chances for major change were probably dim. Indeed, the unions get some points for modest concessions on cost of living adjustments (COLAs) and retiree age. They also got some lesser-noticed wins; part-time employees like teachers assistants - exiled from the pension system in the original bill - should remain in the system. In the long run, it's reasonable to assume that some of the traditional allies who bolted on pensions will support labor on lower-profile fights next year and beyond. But that pool of traditional allies is clearly smaller than it was decades ago. It's hard not to see the passage of a tough pension bill as a symbol of labor's declining power on Smith Hill.
  • The AARP, which labor thought would be a potent ally, does not seem to have shifted the pension debate in any fundamental way.
  • The mayors, particularly Taveras and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung - out front in pushing for municipal pension reform - clearly lost on their most important legislative fight to date. Taveras did have a solid first session though, prior to the pension battle, so don't read too much into this defeat.
  • The taxpayers, who often feel second fiddle to special interests on Smith Hill, get a more solvent government. An engaged public - and the polls showed a surprising level of engagement on this issue - is a potent public. Whether the plan they are helping to usher in solves the problem once and for all, or makes for the wisest public policy, we'll see in time.
  • The media did reasonably well on the issue. The Providence Journal, which does not cover the state with nearly the breadth it once did, still maintains a sharp focus on state government. This story was in the paper's wheelhouse and it devoted considerable ink and manpower to the effort, often with good results. Nesi, at WPRI, was very strong on the issue - sharp insights, helpful graphics. The media, writ large, failed in one important regard, though. There is a compelling contrarian perspective that says this crisis is not as bad as it appears - that it could be fixed more gradually. And it is not just public employees making the argument. There are some smart economists in this camp as well. The press paid some passing attention to the argument, but never fully explored it. I think the public debate suffered as a result.
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