Rhode Islanders who picked up their New York Times this morning probably did a double take when they reached the op-ed page and saw Providence native Joe Nocera’s column blaming the American Legislative Exchange Council – ALEC – for Woonsocket’s plight. Nocera picked up the theme from former WPRO reporter Bob Plain, who’s been covering Woonsocket for liberal blog Rhode Island’s Future.
But as Plain admitted Tuesday, his case for linking ALEC and Woonsocket is based solely on “enough circumstantial evidence to at least raise the question.” And Providence Phoenix editor David Scharfenberg, who previously looked into whether ALEC was behind Rhode Island’s voter ID law, is unconvinced:
[P]laying the ALEC card seems a bit cheap here. Brien is an unabashed conservative, with or without ALEC. And while the group may provide the legislator with a bit of intellectual succor, there’s no evidence to suggest it had anything to do with Brien’s decisionmaking on Woonsocket’s finances.
Josh Barro, now writing for Bloomberg View, says Nocera hasn’t done his homework:
The truth is that Woonsocket is the most indebted municipality in Rhode Island, relative to its property tax base, and a majority of its debts are related to pension and health benefits for municipal retirees. …
Whatever happens in Woonsocket, there will be a lot of hard choices made and pain experienced. Defenders of the public employee compensation status quo desperately wish that weren’t the case, and that Woonsocket’s troubles were simply invented or created by ideologically-driven conservatives. As actual lawmakers in Rhode Island — most of them Democrats – are learning, the situation isn’t nearly that simple.
Substance aside, Rhode Island Public Radio’s Ian Donnis adds a shrewd meta observation from the media-critic perspective: “This is further evidence that Plain has energized the liberal blog in a way not seen since the era of its founder, Matt Jerzyk.”
• Related: Q&A with NYT’s Nocera on paywalls, Providence and CEO pay (April 11, 2011)
Chafee is coming out for mandate reform for the same reason that mayors like Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel and Los Angeles’s Antonio Villaraigosa are aggressively pushing pension reform. A majority of the typical local government budget consists of compensation costs. States and localities face significant political and economic barriers to collecting new revenue. When budgets get squeezed, the practical choice is often between reining in compensation costs per employee or cutting back on service delivery.
For politicians who care about providing high-quality government services, public employee compensation reforms have become the best available option.
Bob Plain of Rhode Island’s Future thinks I missed a crucial distinction between Chafee’s ideas and Carcieri’s:
[T]he big difference is Chafee’s bottom-up approach. Carcieri’s proposal was a blanket exemption to every municipality and Chafee’s is need-based. RI Future has held the former governor’s feet to the fire for cutting so much money from cities and towns that had so little. So did Chafee earlier this week.
Here’s hoping that Chafee’s proposal sparks a big debate in the General Assembly about the disparity between the haves and have-not communities in Rhode Island as this is arguably the biggest affliction affecting the entire state.
Monique Chartier of Anchor Rising thinks it’s foolish that some of the savings would go into pension funds:
Many cities and towns do not have the revenue to properly fund their pension plans. Some cities and towns do not have the revenue to maintain day to day operations, much less try to make up underfunded and very generous pensions. Accordingly, how could they have the money to reinvest, exclusively or otherwise, into their pension systems?
The Projo reports labor leaders are not happy:
Governor Chafee’s proposal to let financially distressed cities and towns make significant changes to union contracts represents a “fundamental assault” on the labor movement’s “core values,” according to George H. Nee, president of the state AFL-CIO. …
[James Parisi, lobbyist for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals] said giving certain cities and towns the ability to freeze annual salary increases for teachers and change medical benefits were particularly offensive, considering local chapters have, over the years, made concessions in their contract negotiations. …
Paul L. Valletta Jr., lobbyist for the State Association of Fire Fighters, said the proposal essentially allows executives of financially distressed cities and towns to “rip up” collectively-bargained union contracts.
“I actually thought this governor thought more of working men and women of this state,” he said. “This opens up everything. There are no protections anymore.”
And in case you missed it earlier this morning, my take is that Chafee sounds a lot like Carcieri:
Chafee’s pitch on Thursday sounded much like his predecessor’s in December 2009. ”I urge the General Assembly to pass the municipal tools articles immediately upon returning to session,” Carcieri said. “There is no need to debate them again this year. Pass them and free the cities and towns to manage their own budgets.”