Thus describes an Illinois state Senator the challenge states face in reforming their public employee pension systems. Given that reality, it’s astounding reform would ever succeed. But succeed it has, in states with very large pension shortfalls that threaten to blow up their budgets.
Staring into the financial abyss, it seems, can help politicians overcome their strong temptation to offer generous benefits to their supporters — government employee unions in the case of pensions — and passing off the bill to future generations. Yet, government unions will defend their benefits even in states in extreme financial distress, as the recent Rhode Island pension settlement shows.
On February 14, Rhode Island officials reached an agreement to end six legal challenges to the state’s 2011 pension reform, the most far-reaching in the nation to date. The agreement scales back some of the savings in the 2011 reform bill, but preserves most of them. Governor Lincoln Chafee and State Treasurer Gina Raimondo invested considerable effort and political capital in crafting and enacting the 2011 pension reform. So why did they agree to scale back any of it?
Because they had to. The state was forced into negotiating by a judge, ruling on a union legal challenge to the pension reform legislation. As Drew University political science professor Patrick McGuinn describes the decision in a new Brookings Institution study, “Pension Politics: Public Employee Retirement System Reform in Four States” (which points to Rhode Island’s reform as a model):
In December 2012, a Superior Court judge ordered the unions and the governor/treasurer’s office into mediation to resolve the dispute—an extremely unusual (and perhaps even unconstitutional) move.
In effect, the judge ordered the Chafee administration to negotiate with the unions to amend a law that had already been passed by the legislature and signed by the governor.
While legally dubious, the February 2014 agreement may be the least bad option in terms of achieving sound policy — which in the case of Rhode Island means preventing a budget meltdown. If a judge is willing to order the state government to renegotiate a law already on the books, who knows what might come next in court?