Rhode Island and unions challenging its landmark 2011 pension benefit overhaul law are working on an agreement to settle the case and avoid a jury trial scheduled to begin next month.
Gov. Gina Raimondo met Tuesday afternoon with Frank Williams, the retired state Supreme Court justice Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter appointed as special master in the case. The 7,500-member umbrella group Rhode Island Public Employees Retiree Coalition, meanwhile, has scheduled a vote for Monday at Twin River Casino in Lincoln. R.I., on a compromise agreement.
Speaking to reporters late Tuesday, Raimondo was cautious.
“We’re working hard at settlement; we’re working hard at trial,” she said. “If we can settle on terms that would be good for the state, it would be great and if we can’t, we’ll go to trial.”
Before appointing Williams special master, Taft-Carter rejected a motion by the state to delay the start of the trial from April until January 2016.
Raimondo as general treasurer championed the law that then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed in November 2011 after heated debate. State officials say the move would save Rhode Island $4 billion over 20 years and lower its lower its annual contribution from $305 million to $177 million.
Bond rating agencies have called the move a credit positive. Moody's Investors Service rates the state's general obligation bonds Aa2. Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor's rate them AA.
The law reduced benefits for active participants in the $8 billion Employees' Retirement System of Rhode Island by shifting them to a hybrid system combining defined-benefit and defined-contribution plans, and limiting cost of living adjustments for retirees, among other changes.
A settlement announced in February 2014 stalled when a police union rejected it. The compromise, which officials said would have preserved 95% of the expected savings, needed the approval of all unions.
The latest compromise reportedly involves slight changes to the retirement age and cost-of-living adjustments for retirees.
“The members that I represent are in the driver’s seat, and that’s why I want to have them vote,” Michael Downey, president of Council 94 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told television station WPRI. He added that Council 94’s union locals will hold elections on the settlement and conclude the process by March 27.