The on-again, off-again Rhode Island pension lawsuit settlement announcement is on again.

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Board has planned a 4:15 p.m. press conference Friday "at the joint request of attorneys for the State and for Rhode Island public employee unions and retirees" to report on the ongoing settlement talks.

Five public-sector unions are challenging Rhode Island's landmark 2011 law, which overhauled the pension-benefit system for state employees. State Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter in 2012 ordered mediation talks and imposed a gag order.

The independent federal agency abruptly called off a Wednesday press conference at which it was to announce a settlement. It triggered speculation over whether the deal was to close or go south.

"It's the strangest process I've ever seen," House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, told reporters.

"Obviously it could be both," said workout pro Bill Brandt, the president and chief executive of Development Specialists Inc, in Chicago and chairman of the Illinois Finance Authority. "The federal mediation board likes to paint a big picture at the beginning, get everyone to buy into the details and then after they get the buy-in, flesh out the granular details. They could be doing that here."

The law, which generated national headlines and favorable reactions in the credit markets, created a hybrid plan merging conventional public defined-benefit pension plans with 401(k)-style defined contribution plans. It also included a suspension of cost-of-living adjustment increases for retirees and raised the retirement age for employees not yet eligible for retirement.

Speculation has centered around the possible reinstatement of cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs. State officials three years ago called the move necessary because the system was going broke.

"We don't have a pension problem, we have a COLA problem," said Brandt. "Our math teachers in school used to talk about the glory of 3% compounded interest for our savings accounts. With liabilities it's just as factual."

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