State House Passes Budget
The State House passed the budget last night:
By an overwhelming majority, the House last night passed a new $6.35-billion state budget which cuts pension benefits, lowers the car tax and drastically increases the fee developers pay to receive historic tax credits.
In stark contrast to last year, the debate in the House was generally orderly and civil, leading to a 71-to-2 vote in support of a new budget for the year starting Friday.
With Republican Governor Carcieri backing the budget for the first time in his three years in office — and calling it a “great win for our citizens” — all 15 House Republicans voted yea.
“Obviously I think it was a good night,” Carcieri said shortly after the 8:22 p.m. vote. “I mean, everybody came together.”
While he said the 6.5-percent increase in spending “is still too high,” Carcieri applauded the pension changes, tax-relief efforts and aid package for cities and towns.
House Speaker William J. Murphy, D-West Warwick, said “all parties involved realized that we were working for the best interests of the people of Rhode Island,” even those who didn’t support him as speaker and tried to kill last year’s budget…
The Senate Finance Committee expects to consider, and approve, the budget at a 3 p.m. hearing today, with the goal of a floor vote by the full Senate tomorrow. Murphy says he hopes to finish this session by Thursday…
One of the most important budget items was the changes in state pension rules:
After close to two hours of debate, the House approved a “pension reform” package aimed at shaving $44 million off the spiralling cost of public employee pensions. The final vote was 60 to 12.
For those hired after July 1 and those not yet vested, the new pension rules will establish a minimum retirement age for the first time since 1984; place new curbs on the 3-percent, compounded cost-of-living increases state retirees get now; and reduce the pension-dollar value of each year of work in such a way that the maximum benefit goes from 80 percent after 35 years, to 75 percent after 38.
While today’s state employees and public school teachers can retire at any age, and begin collecting a pension immediately, after 28 years of work, new and non-vested workers will have to wait until age 59 to get a pension, after at least 29 years of work, or age 65 after 10 years of work….
You will never guess who was whining about these changes:
Angry union leaders papered the State House earlier in the day with fliers decrying the moves and questioning both their legality and fairness.
Rhode Island Federation of Teachers President Marcia Reback went another step to try to dispel the notion that she and other unions leaders did not attempt to negotiate or offer a counterproposal until it was too late.
Reback said union leaders thought they were still in negotiations — up until the final hours — of how to eke out enough savings elsewhere in the budget to blunt the blow of the proposed changes. She said they came up with $3 million and asked if that would do — but never got a response.
“The leadership let us down,” she said.
But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Stephen Alves, D-West Warwick, said at an afternoon budget briefing for colleagues that House and Senate leaders had wanted to extend the COLA changes to all employees, regardless of service.
But, Alves said, “the unions rejected that proposal,” and union leaders said they would have gone to court.
Union leaders watched, from the House gallery, as the lawmakers beat back one effort after another by Representatives Peter Wasylyk, D-Providence, and Arthur Handy, D-Cranston, to loosen the new age-and-work requirements, leave the retiree COLAs untouched, reduce employee contributions and insulate pension benefits from future tinkering by making them a “contractual right.”
Opponents of the pension cuts said they would unfairly penalize today’s workers for “sins of the past,” and make them pay first-class employee-contribution rates for second-class benefits.
But Rep. Joseph Trillo, R-Warwick, argued: “This is still the greatest deal. . . . You and I should have such a deal, but we don’t.”
After the final vote, the union leaders said they would try again next year. “It’s unfair, inequitable,” said Larry Purtill, president of the NEA-RI. “Seven thousandteachers and 4,000 state employees are going to be paying for past sins.”…
They just don’t quit complaining, do they?
There were additional issues in the area of education funding:
…The House approved what some lawmakers — including the president of the Providence teachers’ union, Rep. Steven Smith — decried as an inadequate $19.3-million increase in school aid.
Smith, D-Providence, demanded to know why school districts were being forced to lay off staff while the state Department of Education was getting more money for new jobs for “political friends and relatives.” Whatever message House budget writers meant to send about “fiscal responsibility,” he said, the message he heard was: “We don’t care about the conditions in your building[s].”
Republicans also objected to a change in the formula of what cities and towns qualify as a “distressed community.” Under the new formula, North Providence will again become eligible for aid in the coming year.
Rep. Nicholas Gorham, R-Coventry, said he hadn’t heard “one scintilla of data” as to why the qualifying line should be moved…