Chafee talks with his policy director Brian Daniels, left, and communications director Mike Trainor.
This is the second of three articles based on my interview with Governor Chafee.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee is not ruling out reducing pension benefits for current state retirees and employees already vested in the system if that’s what Treasurer Gina Raimondo decides is necessary to get it on sounder footing.
“We have to fix it,” Chafee said Monday when asked about the pension system during a 45-minute interview with WPRI.com in his Statehouse office. Asked if that was the bottom line for him, the governor said: “Yes. Yes.”
But, Chafee added, “It’s not going to be easy – even my 3% [increase in employee pension contributions] is not popular.” He expressed hope that public-sector unions would support major changes, too, if it means they can promise their members they will receive the pensions they have been promised.
Chafee’s comments came the week of a state Retirement Board meeting – scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday – where Raimondo is set to release a study that will show whether Rhode Island’s assumptions about the state pension system’s financial health are accurate.
Chafee said he and Raimondo “share a strong feeling that this has to be done as collaboratively as possible, to get success. … If it’s going to be successful, the treasurer, the governor, the unions, Assembly leaders, all should be part of the proposal.” He referenced the 2009 report of a special legislative commission on pension changes as one potential starting point for discussions.
Local pensions could be cut
The governor reiterated his concern about locally administered municipal pension funds, many of which are in far worse shape than the state’s. His budget would create a new Municipal Accountability, Stability and Transparency (MAST) Fund that would combine increased local aid with punishments for communities that do not make their full retirement fund contributions annually.
Chafee said he has learned more about concerns expressed by Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and others that the MAST Fund’s requirements will be too expensive unless they are paired with legislative changes allowing cities and towns to reduce pension benefits. The governor said he discussed the issue at a meeting of town managers recently and is open to signing legislation allowing them to do that.
“I’d absolutely be willing to work with Mayor Fung and the towns and cities on that, if that’s of help in getting their funds solvent,” Chafee said.
Fung said Tuesday he welcomed Chafee’s support. “The question now has to be to what extent he is willing to sort of put his neck on the chopping block for those reforms,” Fung said. “That’s the critical question.”
Fung said he hoped Chafee would support “meaningful reforms, and not just maybe some of these one-offs here and there.” As a starting point, he suggested the governor should lobby in favor of a House bill, H 5884, that includes some of the changes he wants to see. A hearing on that legislation is scheduled for Thursday.
Susanne Greschner, head of the state’s Division of Municipal Finance, recently visited Cranston to hear more about the mayor’s concerns. “I’d love to be able to sit down with the governor myself sometime to see what he’s thinking,” Fung said.
‘Call the roll’ on gay marriage
Another hot topic on Smith Hill this spring is whether to legalize same-sex marriage, which Chafee supports. Proponents have expressed concern that strong opposition in the Senate and a lack of votes in the House could mean the measure does not pass this year.
Chafee called on both chambers to hold roll-call votes on gay marriage now, citing the experience of Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who visited Rhode Island last month and told Chafee he was stunned by how many legislators wound up supporting legalization when a vote was finally called.
“So I say, call the roll,” Chafee said – which House Minority Leader Robert Watson tried and failed to do Tuesday.
Chafee said he was open to two legislative changes that have strong support in Rhode Island’s news industry – the creation of a stronger reporter’s shield law and the addition of a “balancing test” to the state public records act – though he said he would need to study both ideas before deciding whether to sign off on them.
The governor also reiterated that he would like to attend the eventual ribbon-cutting ceremony for 38 Studios, the video game company founded by former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling whose $75 million taxpayer-guaranteed loan was harshly criticized by Chafee as a candidate. The company’s employees began working from their new office in Providence on Tuesday.
Asked whether his attendance would be awkward in light of his rhetoric about 38 Studios on the campaign trail, Chafee replied: “Nah. We’re all grown-ups.”
The governor also said he has not spoken to Schilling since taking office. ”He got a good deal,” Chafee said of Schilling. “I’ve got no gripe against him.”
Chafee emphasized repeatedly that his administration wants to find more spending cuts in state government as it gets the lay of the land. “We can do more with less,” he argued, saying he wants the governor’s office to show the largest percentage decrease in spending this year. Work has already begun on the budget for 2012-13, which is not due until early next year.
The new governor also expressed surprise at the size of the state’s work force after taking a tour. “I’ve been doing walk-throughs of all the state departments, and, frankly, even with all the cuts, I’m boggled at how many people work at [the Department of Administration] over there,” he said. “It took us three days to say ‘Hi’ to everybody.”
Chafee implied he does not want to see the state’s payroll grow. “You can move somebody around maybe, if that’s where it’s needed for providing the service, but do not hire,” he said. “Find somebody, move them.”
Asked why his budget took on so many different policy changes as once, Chafee quoted Martin Luther King’s saying about “the fierce urgency of now.”
“Let’s do as much as we can,” Chafee said. “It’s going to take a long time.”
Check back tomorrow for Chafee’s thoughts on politics – including President Obama, last week’s federal budget deal and the governor’s political future.
(photo: Ted Nesi/WPRI)