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By Kaylen Auer
PBN Web Editor
By Kaylen Auer
PBN Web Editor
(Updated, 6:33 p.m.)
PROVIDENCE – Responding to the abrupt cancellation of a Wednesday press conference expected to announce details of a settlement in the state’s pension battle with public employee unions, Rhode Island legislative leaders said the only thing the General Assembly can do is “wait and see” how the settlement unfolds.
More than 600 state legislators and business leaders attended the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce’s 2014 Annual Legislative Lunch on Wednesday, which included a panel discussion featuring Chamber President Laurie White, Speaker of the House Gordon D. Fox, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, House Majority Leader Nicholas A. Mattiello, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Picard, House Minority Leader Brian C. Newberry and Senate Minority Leader Dennis L. Algiere.
The luncheon was held only hours after a superior court judge set a trial date for the pension lawsuit following the press conference cancellation. White, who moderated the discussion, led off by asking Fox and Paiva Weed if mediation between state and union negotiators had broken down.
“The honest answer is, I don’t know. We don’t know,” said Fox. “I can speculate all day about why a settlement would stall, or why a judge would set a court date … It could be any number of reasons.”
Fox and Paiva Weed emphasized that the General Assembly has not been included in the negotiations, even though Rhode Island’s lawmakers would be charged with approving any changes to the 2011 pension reform legislation brought about by a settlement deal, as well as replacing any savings lost in the budget as a result.
“People are speculating, and they’re looking at us, and we’re just as confused,” said Algiere.
While the lawmaker panelists were reluctant to broach the issue of how or under what circumstances the General Assembly would revisit the pension system overhaul – which is estimated to save the state and municipalities $250 million this year alone – Fox said in an interview after the luncheon that he has concerns about the financial strain that could be placed on municipalities if the terms of any settlement with the unions required a dramatic scaling back of the reform.
“We shouldn’t have to spend energy on this now,” said Newberry during the panel discussion. “We should be focusing on other things.”
Tackling the state’s tax structure, funding workforce training initiatives and making targeted investments in Rhode Island’s innovation economy were a few of the legislative priorities named during the luncheon session, as panelists reiterated the need to improve the perception of the state as a good place to do business.
“We have done Herculean work on this … and it’s frustrating that it’s not reflected in the unemployment numbers,” said Fox. “But you have to wonder where we would have been if we hadn’t done that.”