Pension forum previews possible RI governor race

David Klepper, Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- An investment forum on the financial problems facing America's cities delivered a glimpse Monday of what Rhode Islanders could expect from a potential match-up between Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Treasurer Gina Raimondo in next year's gubernatorial race.

The independent governor and Democratic treasurer both delivered remarks to the more than 250 bond investment professionals attending a symposium in Providence on deficits and pension costs.

With firefighters protesting her appearance outside, Raimondo detailed the sweeping pension changes she crafted two years ago that saved the state billions by cutting benefits to many public workers and retirees. Public-sector unions and retirees are challenging the changes in court, saying they amount to an unfair breach of contract.

"We were sending out the door hundreds of millions of dollars more than we were taking in; we had a crisis," she told the audience. "This is not a partisan issue. This was never about Republican versus Democrat, union versus management."

Chafee used his own remarks to discuss how the economic downturn and steep cuts in state funding forced cities like Central Falls, Providence, East Providence and Woonsocket to the brink of insolvency. Following his comments, Chafee walked across the street to personally greet the firefighters protesting Raimondo. Chafee noted that the legal fight over the pension changes is now in mediation, a route he favored and Raimondo opposed.

"We'll do our best," he told the firefighters.

Organizers said they chose to hold the forum in Rhode Island to get a sense of what the state's municipalities have done to respond to crippling deficits and soaring pension costs that have put the Ocean State at the forefront of a government fiscal crisis roiling cities and towns across the nation.

Raimondo told reporters she sympathizes with the protesting firefighters but that pension costs had to be reined in to protect governments from fiscal collapse and ensure that public workers have a retirement they can count on.

"Sometimes there are difficult choices but we have to be honest," she said. "It's in the interests of the firefighters to support pension reform."

The pension overhaul suspended pension increases for retirees, raised retirement ages and created a new benefit system combining traditional pensions with 401(k)-like accounts. The changes will save an estimated $4 million over the next two decades. While Chafee supported and later signed the 2011 overhaul, he hasn't attracted the same criticism from organized labor as Raimondo.

Union support and public opinions about the pension overhaul are likely to play big roles in next year's gubernatorial race. Raimondo said Monday that she is considering running, though she hasn't made up her mind. Chafee has already said he's planning to seek a second term.

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, a Democrat, and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a Republican, are also mentioned as possible candidates.

Paul Valletta, president of the Cranston firefighters' union, said he was pleased that Chafee came to say hello to him and the scores of other firefighters holding signs outside the forum at Providence's Omni Hotel. But he said his members are less concerned with picking a candidate than protecting their retirement benefits.

"It was good for him to stop by," he said of Chafee. "But we got other fish to fry."