Prospects Dim for Chafee's Municipal Reform

It was two weeks ago that Governor Chafee unveiled a legislative package, during a press conference at Pawtucket City Hall, that aims to help cities and town cut costs and pull back from the brink of fiscal crisis.

Some of the most controversial measures would allow "severely distressed" communities to bypass parts of employee contracts, like salary hikes for teachers, and suspend annual cost-of-living hikes for retirees.

The initial response from Speaker of the House Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed was, as the Providence Journal put it, "cautious." The legislative leaders said in a joint statement that they "look forward to a thorough vetting" and "are committed to continue working with the administration to address the financial challenges the cities and towns face." And there was some early concern about Chafee's legislative strategy.

Well, word on Smith Hill is that the most controversial elements of the governor's package have little chance of enactment this year. It is, after all, an election year. And Democratic representatives who turned on organized labor last year to pass sweeping pension reform have little appetite for another battle royale with the unions.

"You don't want to bust balls every year," says one insider.

There is also a concern that has hung around municipal reform for some time now: that it would be vulnerable to legal challenge since it would allow cities and towns to overturn elements of labor contracts.

This doesn't mean that Chafee's entire package is headed for defeat. Some less controversial elements could pass. And Chafee, if nothing else, gets some political points from mayors - and maybe the public - for even making the proposals.

But for a governor in need of a big legislative victory, this may not be it.


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