R.I. ethics panel rules Sen. Lawson can vote on pension-related bills

Senate Majority Whip Valarie Lawson, an East Providence Democrat, left, and Carly Iafrate, a private attorney representing Lawson, right, listen to proceedings during the Rhode Island Ethics Commission meeting on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. (Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

One-third of Rhode Island lawmakers collect, or could eventually receive, a state pension.

Yet only one, Sen. Majority Whip Valarie Lawson, consulted with the state ethics panel on whether her former teaching career and current job as president of one of the state teachers’ unions preclude her from voting on pension-related legislation.

The answer came swiftly and without discussion during a Rhode Island Ethics Commission meeting Tuesday morning: Go ahead. 

The five-page advisory opinion, approved unanimously, points to a clause within the state ethics code letting public officials participate in actions that may benefit them personally, including financially, if enough other people also receive the same benefit. In other words, the proposed changes to the state pension system affect Lawson no more or less than the 68,000 retirees and active state workers and teachers, including 400 of her co-workers at the state teachers’ union.

Lawson, an East Providence Democrat, worked as an East Providence teacher for 32 years, leaving in December 2022 to take a job with the National Education Association Rhode Island (NEARI). She is not formally retired, instead in “deferred status” within the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island, according to the advisory opinion. She will be eligible to retire and begin collecting a pension without facing an early retirement penalty starting in August 2026.

Pension reform has taken center stage in the final weeks of the 2024 legislative session, with various proposals seeking to reverse or rollback some of the 2011 reforms led by then-Treasurer Gina Raimondo. Among the biggest changes enacted 12 years ago was suspending annual cost-of-living increases for retirees until the financially beleaguered pension system reached more stable funding levels.

The ethics opinion for Lawson relates specifically to five pieces of legislation described as “imminent” for votes in the Rhode Island Senate, including a proposal to provide an annual $2,000 benefit adjustment for retirees starting in 2025, and another to change how annual benefit allowances are calculated.

The ethics opinion does not apply to certain provisions of the updated fiscal 2025 budget proposal unveiled May 31 by House lawmakers, such as reducing the target funding ratio at which time cost-of-living adjustments would be reinstated for all retirees, from 80% funding to 75% funding. Nor does the opinion cover the latest budget’s inclusion of cost-of-living adjustments for retirees who stopped working before 2012, though this addition would not expressly benefit Lawson.

Carly Iafrate, an lawyer representing Lawson, declined to comment when asked if her client will seek additional input on pension-related provisions of the fiscal 2025 budget.

However, the ethics panel’s decision specifies if any of the bills considered in its review are modified during legislative debate, Lawson must recuse herself or else seek additional input.

 The Rhode Island Ethics Commission starts its meeting on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. (Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)
The Rhode Island Ethics Commission starts its meeting on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. (Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

Lawson is hardly the only state lawmaker who stands to benefit from reinstating COLAs or decreasing pension funding ratios. Fourteen members of the Rhode Island General Assembly already collect a state pension; they are former state or municipal workers, teachers or beneficiaries of a deceased spouse or family member. Another 24 have credit toward a future pension payment, according to information obtained by the Rhode Island Current from the Office of the General Treasurer, which manages the state pension fund.

Of the 75 state representatives, 24, or 32%, are pensioners or have credit toward a future state pension. Fourteen state senators out of 38 have or could eventually collect a state pension.

Several of the pension reform measures under consideration are sponsored by lawmakers with direct connections to the state pension system. Sen. Frank Ciccone, a Providence Democrat and retired head of the state Judicial Records Center, has introduced five pension-related reforms, two of which would directly affect him.

Rep. Pat Serpa, a West Warwick Democrat and retired teacher, is also a vocal advocate for retirees at the State House, with four pension-related bills in play. 

Yet no one besides Lawson has asked for the ethics commission to weigh in on a potential conflict of interest on pending legislation this year, according to information listed on the Rhode Island Ethics Commission website. 

That’s not ideal, both for lawmakers’ own protection as well as the public’s interest, said John Marion, executive director for Common Cause Rhode Island.

“We think out of an abundance of caution, the best course of action is to seek an advisory opinion,” Marion said in an interview on Tuesday. “It provides a safe harbor. It also provides the public some solace that the legislator did their due diligence.”

Yet, Marion also acknowledged that Lawson is in a unique position. She’s not only a prospective pension collector but an advocate for the 12,000 members of NEARI. And she’s in a leadership position, having been tapped as the Senate’s majority whip following the Nov. 7 election.

“Some lawmakers are very comfortable relying on their own understanding of what is and isn’t a conflict,” Marion said. “Folks in leadership tend to be more risk-averse because they are more likely to get attacked.”

The “class exception” of the state ethics code used to approve Lawson’s participation on pension bill votes doesn’t set a number for how many people in an affected group diminish the conflict of interest for a public official who also belongs to that group.

Yet generally speaking, it’s a necessary provision particularly for lawmakers whose duties include votes on wide-reaching tax and policy proposals that inherently affect them, along with many of their constituents, Marion said.

“You can’t really disqualify a third of the legislature from voting on something,” he said. “If it’s going to disproportionately affect one legislator, that’s different. Where that line is is the whole debate.”

These 14 lawmakers collect a state pension

  1.  Sen. John Burke, a West Warwick Democrat and retired University of Rhode Island worker 

  2.  Rep. Edward Cardillo, a Johnston Democrat and retired Johnston municipal worker (Johnston is one of the municipalities with a pension fund administered by the state)

  3.  Sen. Frank Ciccone, a Providence Democrat and retired state government worker

  4.  Sen. Anthony DeLuca, Warwick Republican, a former East Greenwich firefighter who retired with a disability pension 

  5.  Rep. Susan Donovan, a Bristol Democrat and retired teacher

  6.  Sen. Hanna Gallo, Cranston Democrat and retired school speech language pathologist 

  7.  Rep. Arthur Handy, a Cranston Democrat, the widower of a former state government employee 

  8.  Rep. Charlene Lima, a Cranston Democrat and retired teacher

  9.  Rep. Joseph McNamara, a Warwick Democrat and retired school administrator

  10.  Rep. Mary Messier, a Pawtucket Democrat and retired teacher

  11.  Rep. Patricia Morgan, a West Warwick Republican and retired teacher

  12.  Rep. Sherry Roberts, a West Greenwich Republican, and former state government worker who retired on disability 

  13.  Rep. Pat Serpa, a West Warwick Democrat and retired teacher

  14.  Sen. David Tikoian, a Smithfield Democrat and retired Rhode Island State Police trooper

Source: Office of the General Treasurer

This story was updated to correct Carly Iafrate’s role as attorney for Sen. Valarie Lawson.

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