Regular readers of the blog know that Treasurer Raimondo has become a lightening-rod for criticism of the state’s recent changes to the public employee pension system.
As a tactic, I’ll admit it’s a good one, simultaneously riling up the base and drawing media attention to the union and retiree’s position. It’s also the first salvo in what’s bound to be a contentious Democratic primary for the Governor’s office. But is the General Treasurer actually at fault? Consider the duties of the office.
The General Treasurer receives and disburses all state funds, issues general obligation notes and bonds, manages the investment of state funds and oversees the retirement system for state employees, teachers and some municipal employees. She is also responsible for the management of the Unclaimed Property Division, the Crime Victim Compensation Program and the state-sponsored CollegeBoundfund.
Noticeably absent is any mention of negotiating union contracts. That’s simply not her job. What critics would have you believe is that Treasurer Raimondo should have essentially “gone rogue” and usurped the Governor’s duties and possibly those of the General Assembly. L’état, c’est Gina? I’m not convinced. This blog has even gone so far as to suggest that the General Treasurer should be more concerned with “main street” than with the state’s investments and bond rating.
I’ve been a fairly consistent Raimondo supporter, but I was also present at last year’s State House protest adding my voice to the position that the plan asked too much of the neediest pension recipients. In fact I agree, as Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Healthcare Professionals president Frank Flynn put it, that it’s “not a simple math problem as some people describe it.” But that isn’t the job of the General Treasurer. For a treasurer, it is a math problem, and we shouldn’t expect otherwise.
And Raimondo spent an inordinate amount of time speaking with voters, union members, and retirees throughout the state before making her proposal. Oddly that’s what now seems to rile opponents. As Paul Valletta, the head of the Cranston fire fighters’ union said, “It isn’t the money, it’s the way she went about it.”
I’m not sure what else she could have done. Valletta is essentially complaining that the General Treasurer acted within the duties of the General Treasurer. That’s what we as taxpayers pay her to do! If the unions and retirees are unhappy with the absence of a formerly negotiated outcome, let’s be honest. It’s the Governor, not the General Treasurer, who’s to blame.
I’ve also been concerned that many progressives seem intent on framing the General Treasurer as some union hating, right-wing ideologue. It’s not a fair characterization given that we know little yet about what priorities Raimondo would bring to the Governor’s office, and what we do know is largely in line with progressive priorities (a social liberal who believes in marriage equality and respects the rights of immigrants). During the Carcieri years, we’d have been thrilled with a candidate with progressive credentials a fraction of hers. Yes, she has been at the forefront of a pension reform movement heralded largely by the fringe right. But to assume that makes her one of the fringe right, ignores how seriously underfunded the pensions have been here in Rhode Island. It’s quite a different thing to enact reform out of a sense of obligation than to do so because of an ideological desire to eliminate them entirely.
Ms. Raimondo also learned early on about economic forces at work in her state. When she was in sixth grade, the Bulova watch factory, where her father worked, shut its doors. He was forced to retire early, on a sharply reduced pension; he then juggled part-time jobs.
“You can’t let people think that something’s going to be there if it’s not,” Ms. Raimondo said in an interview in her office in the pillared Statehouse, atop a hill in Providence. No one should be blindsided, she said. If pensions are in trouble, it’s better to deliver the news and give people time to make other plans.
How much easier it would have been, how much less detrimental to her political future (at least with the progressives of the state) to simply enact some changes around the margins and kick the can down the road for someone else to address (historical the way most pols have handled the problem). Should we as progressives be critical of the Raimondo plan? Absolutely, but let’s not shoot down a potential rising star before she’s even had a chance to announce her platform.