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RI lawmakers working on pension bill's next steps

By David Klepper
Associated Press / November 2, 2011

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PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Rhode Island lawmakers are mulling changes big and small to a public pension overhaul proposal after hearing from hundreds of Rhode Islanders during 30 hours of hearings on the legislation.

Lawmakers working on the proposal said it could be weeks before the General Assembly votes on the legislation. First, they said, they'll carefully weigh amendments to the complicated bill.

Most will be technical, designed to make minute adjustments to arcane pension details. But some lawmakers also want to look at bigger changes that could change the bill and determine the outcome of the state's efforts to rein in mounting pension costs.

The legislation from Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Treasurer Gina Raimondo aims to save the state billions of dollars in future years by suspending automatic annual pension increases for many workers, raising retirement ages and creating a hybrid system combining traditional pensions with 401(k)-style accounts.

Mayors in Providence, Cranston and other cities have asked lawmakers to expand the proposal to include locally run municipal pension plans as well as the state-run system.

Public-sector unions want lawmakers to make pension changes more gradual, or to split the proposal into different parts. They've vowed to sue the state if lawmakers adopt the plan as written.

Another proposed amendment would restore pension increases to lower-income retirees sooner than Raimondo and Chafee have proposed.

Raimondo, a Democrat, had urged lawmakers not to amend the proposal but she now acknowledges that some changes may be unavoidable. But she said she would oppose efforts to remove the proposal's cornerstone, the suspension of the automatic pension increases. Under that provision, most retired public workers wouldn't see a pension increase for a projected 19 years, though lower-income retirees would see increases return earlier, in a projected 12 years.

"I would not support amendments that fundamentally change the bill," she warned lawmakers Tuesday night.

Lawmakers insist the decision to alter the bill is up to them.

Rep. Larry Valencia, D-Richmond, said he wants to consider ways to soften the effect of the changes on lower-income retirees.

"Though I respect the general treasurer's interest in getting passed what she proposed, that's just not how the legislative process works," Valencia said. "I'm sure the General Assembly will put its stamp on this."

Lawmakers this week wrapped up four days of hearings that saw hundreds of Rhode Islanders weigh in for and against the bill. House Finance Committee Chairman Helio Melo, D-East Providence, said the hearings left lawmakers with many questions to answer before they can vote on the measure.

Melo said he hopes his committee can vote on the legislation by Thanksgiving.

`We're going to take our time and do this properly," he said.