But Who Dropped the Anchor?
RI General Treasurer Gina Raimondo uses an apt metaphor to describe the significance of the state’s public pension problem:
“If you remember one thing from me this afternoon, remember this,” Raimondo said, speaking bluntly: “fixing this state’s pension system is not an issue, it is the issue. Our state retirement debt is an anchor holding our state back and preventing our growth into the future.”
She goes a bit far, to my mind, in that state and municipal governments have sunk myriad anchors over the year — of taxation, regulation, mandates, and so on. Pensions are notable because they provide a stark dollar amount of looming debt. How much the state has lost in economic activity because its policies are constructed to pool power in the hands of a few narrow classes (mostly related to tax-revenue-related employment in one way or another) is not so easily calculable.
Perhaps out of political calculation or perhaps because she’s not ready to begin discarding the worldview that her progressive supporters recognized in her, Raimondo leans quickly away from the larger problem underlying the state’s pension difficulties:
She acknowledged the challenge is complex and emotional. “I am extremely sympathetic to our state employees and our teachers. They did everything they were told. They have paid into the system as they were told. They have worked hard faithfully every year. It’s not their fault. And we should not blame employees. The fault is that the system was designed poorly. And if you’re looking for a culprit, I believe that culprit is politics.”
For some 30 years, she said, elected officials extended benefits for retirees without putting enough money aside to pay for them.
Let’s not soft-pedal this. Among the “everything they were told” was voting for particular candidates for political offices at both the state and municipal levels and engaging in such activities as strikes and work-to-rule in order to foster an environment favorable to their side of negotiations. (Indeed, the number of politicians who have been union members over those 30 years is probably too high to count.) With only so much they could give away to labor in the open, those friendly politicians gave away money that wouldn’t come due for years to come.
The culprit may be politics, as Raimondo insists, but it has been a politics dominated by and consciously perpetuated by employees and their unions. The current crop of such politicians cannot ignore the pension problem much longer (despite the hypnotic cooing of union propagandists), and although it’s possible that they’ll change what needs to be changed without naming it, that outcome isn’t very likely.