Is the media in RI being too credulous about pension reform?November 22nd, 2011 at 12:31 pm by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes
Anchor Rising’s Justin Katz, never one to join the popular throng, thinks The Journal, yours truly and other members of the Rhode Island press corps swallowed state officials’ preferred line on pension reform hook, line and sinker:
Wouldn’t it be reasonable — no, obvious, obligatory — at least to wonder out loud whether there might be something more going on here than the advertisements and political speeches proclaim? I mean, not only does Paiva Weed have union officials on her leadership team, but they voted for the bill. Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio (D, North Providence, Providence), who exchanges nepotism jobs with his fellow high-paid union leaders, voted for this pension reform bill. Why does it feel like Anchor Rising is the only outlet in Rhode Island concerned that maybe, just maybe, there are some major catches built into this reform — perhaps so dramatic that the actual “reforms” were boards on a Trojan horse?
Justin is entitled to his opinion, and I take his critique seriously; I was reading Anchor Rising long before anybody was reading me. I suppose it’s possible the pension law is a finely crafted mirage, a major policy shift at first glance that turns out to be just a Band-Aid which “fell well short of where it should be,” in Justin’s words. But as one of the reporters who covered this debate most closely, I don’t think that’s the case.
I can’t speak for The Journal, but I tried hard over the last 10 months to find experts outside Rhode Island to help me explain the pension debate: Josh Barro, Dean Baker, Education Sector, the Pew Center on the States, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Moody’s, the Congressional Budget Office, as well as others who either didn’t have time to talk or ignored my emails and phone calls. One reason I did that is because – brace yourselves – not all wisdom is contained between Woonsocket and Westerly, and another is because those people didn’t have battle scars or other agendas from Rhode Island political and policy battles past and present.
All of them had different opinions on the best approach to shore up a significantly underfunded pension system like Rhode Island’s. But I never talked to anyone who dismissed the changes enacted here – the nation’s highest public-sector retirement age; a years-long COLA freeze; a limited reamortization; a hybrid plan for most workers – as fig leaves. These are significant, consequential policy changes. And with big increases in pension contributions looming next year, is that really any surprise?
The circumstances cited by Justin raised the same red flags for me. Why did the labor-dominated Senate approve this bill 35-2? I think anyone who’s been paying attention over the last few weeks can tick off some answers right away: the exclusion of the locally run plans, the (last-minute) contractors tax, the interim COLA, the graduated retirement age transition. Why did Chafee sign a law strongly opposed by NEARI, the union most responsible for his election? Probably because the governor remains, at heart, a Rockefeller Republican who wants government to live within its means (which sometimes leads him to propose tax increases that increase its means). Why did Gina Raimondo, a liberal Democrat, push this at all? Because she’s a financial-sector Dem in the Robert Rubin mold, closer to the professional class than the labor movement, as well as an ambitious individual who saw this as a test of leadership.
Don’t forget, too, that Democrats who backed the bill could have deep-blue reasons for supporting it. More than a few of them want to avoid spending more money from the state budget on pensions primarily in order to spend it elsewhere – on social services, on RIte Care, on education, on infrastructure, on raises for unionized state workers. Younger ones I spoke with also questioned whether a defined-benefit pension plan that offers no benefits for workers until they’ve been in office for 10 years is really a good HR move in 2011. And the deep pockets and loud advocacy of Engage Rhode Island made voting against the bill a nerve-wracking prospect for lawmakers by the end. Indeed, would EngageRI have been able to raise more than $500,000 to push a sham pension bill through?
This certainly isn’t the bill Justin or the Cato Institute would have written – I’m not sure exactly what they would have done, but I’d imagine it would have involved larger benefit reductions, perhaps a defined-contribution-only plan going forward, no reamortization, etc. Justin’s bill might also have stayed a bill and not become a law because it couldn’t pass the General Assembly. But that’s what media commentators are for – to promote ideas that aren’t politically practical at the moment.
Some of what Justin is accurately seeing here is the media’s need to craft a narrative. I love charts more than most, but when big news happens, people want to read a story: How did this happen? Why did this happen? Who made this happen? Much of the pension coverage since Thursday night has been along those lines. Too often, it’s true, journalists bend over backwards to create a story and in doing so we risk glossing over so many details that the final product fails to accurately reflect complicated reality and all its contradictions. It’s important to guard against that – and to call us out when we do it. Justin is also right that immediate coverage of an event when leaders “get something done” often plays into the love for compromise shared by many independents, centrists and media folks. In Rhode Island’s case, it’s a marked contrast with the growing dysfunction of the policymaking process on Washington, too.
The hallmark of good policy reporting is the ability to separate the personalities proposing an idea from the actual substance of it. The pension debate is a case where a surprising, one-time-only coalition was forced, by circumstances and politics, to enact something unexpectedly substantial. And that alone makes it an interesting story.
Update: And here’s Justin’s reply. I’ll let him have the last word, but I appreciate his gracious response.