Second Pension Fund OK'd For 1,100 Union Members
PROVIDENCE - In the final days of the legislative session, the Almond administration has introduced and won the Senate's support for a bill requiring an estimated $250,000 in state payments to a second pension fund for 1,100 state workers who belong to the Laborers International Union of North America.
Introduced on June 21 by Sen. Frank Caprio, the Providence Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, the bill whizzed through his committee on Tuesday night and the full Senate yesterday.
Critics dubbed the original version a "double-pension bill." Among them, Sen. J. Michael Lenihan, who voiced concern for putting the state "on the hook and making it fiscally responsible for a pension system over which it has no control."
House Finance Committee Chairman Antonio J. Pires, D-Pawtucket, also voiced concern about the wording of the original bill, which said: "It is the intent of the General Assembly that the state of Rhode Island make contributions for an employer-sponsored plan outside the state employees retirement system on behalf of certain state employees in accordance with .. certain collective bargaining provisions."
But spokesmen for the Almond administration said the intent is much narrower than the wording might suggest. And Caprio who introduced the bill at the request of the Almond administration and top Laborers officials added new wording before the Senate vote last night to make it clear the bill requires no additional state money.
Almond press secretary Lisa Pelosi said the bill merely provides "a mechanism" for the state to divert to a Laborers union pension fund a portion of the salary increases it has promised civilian employees of the state police and other members of the three Laborers unions in state government who work in the courts, the state Department of Transportation, Zambarano Hospital and other smaller state agencies.
"The way it has been presented to me," Pelosi said, "it is no additional cost to the state. There is no more money than what they have been granted through their pay raises."
Initially, the deductions will range from 24 cents to 54 cents an hour for these 35-hour-a-week state employees, or amounts ranging from $8.40 to $18.90 weekly.
State Labor Relations Administrator John Turano estimates the payments to the Laborers pension fund will total about $250,000. For the workers, the deductions will be in addition to the 8.75 percent of pay they are already required to contribute to the state employees retirement system.
Turano said current law guarantees the state that it will not have to pay the workers any more than they have already been promised in the contracts settled last January and February. He cited a provision in the law entitled "membership in other retirement systems" that says, in part: "participants in a union retirement system shall not receive a greater wage or benefit increase than that granted other state employees."
But hours before the scheduled vote on the bill, Caprio acknowledged that the wording needed "some attention to clarify the issues."
This marks the second year in a row that the administration has thrown a union pension bill into the hopper in the final days of the legislative session. Last year's bill exempted workers in a union pension plan from the so-called double-dipping ban that prohibits state workers from seeking credit in more than one pension system for the same time.
"If the union members want it, we should not be the ones to stand in the way," state administration director Robert L. Carl Jr. said at the time.
When asked again yesterday why the administration waited until the final hours of this year's session to seek legislative approval for the union pension deductions it has promised, retroactive to last Dec. 31,Turano said: "We needed to have an accounting mechanism for the contributions. We didn't recognize that, apparently."