PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - A newly formed advocacy group launched its public campaign Thursday for Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Treasurer Gina Raimondo's forthcoming pension bill, trumpeting a list of well-connected supporters and deep pockets to match.
Engage Rhode Island placed advertisements in Thursday's Providence Journal and on the radio to mark the unveiling of its website, EngageRI.org, which was registered Sept. 6. The 501(c)4 nonprofit has no paid staff but has hired a team of consultants led by Providence public-relations agency Duffy & Shanley, said Jon Duffy, the firm's president.
Engage Rhode Island has a six-figure budget to tap into during the coming weeks as the General Assembly debates the Raimondo-Chafee bill in the special session set for October, Duffy said. He declined to reveal the group's list of contributors, noting that federal rules for 501(c)4 organizations don't require them to do so.
"We respect the privacy of our contributors and we're not going to sell, rent or share our list of supporters," Duffy told WPRI.com. "Our board of directors and our coalition members are out there, and if you've looked at our advocacy it's positive; it's not negative. So we're not hiding behind some organization. We're transparent."
EngageRI's coalition is "growing every day," Duffy said, and includes a number of business members as well as two social-service organizations, Crossroads Rhode Island and Family Service of Rhode Island. The new group is hiring lobbyists who will press lawmakers to pass the Raimondo-Chafee bill in full next month, he said.
"We want to see an up-or-down vote on the pension plan as it is submitted by the governor and the treasurer," he said. "We want comprehensive pension reform. We don't want watered-down pension reform."
The advertisement in Thursday's Projo trumpeted the plan as one "that will close the pension deficit and stabilize our retirement system WITHOUT raising taxes." Raimondo offered a broad outline of what her proposal will include during an appearance on WPRI 12′s "Newsmakers" earlier this month.
Rhode Island AFI-CIO President George Nee also declined to disclose details about the budget and financial supporters of the Rhode Island Retirement Security Coalition, an ad hoc group of unions that looks to be the main counterpoint to Engage Rhode Island. Nee's coalition is not organizing as a 501(c)4, however.
Asked about Engage Rhode Island, Nee told WPRI.com, "That's the democratic process." He added: "I just hope that they keep the same tone, that it was not the fault of the employees who paid in. I think everyone recognizes there's a problem, and I hope we can do this in a civil, respectful way."
Duffy said EngageRI is "not connected to the treasurer or the governor in any way," but it includes a number of people with ties to them.
Raimondo is vice-chair of the board at Crossroads, an EngageRI coalition member. Margaret Holland McDuff, the EngageRI board's co-chair, served on Gov. Lincoln Chafee's transition team last fall. Lawyer Ted Long, its secretary, is a former top aide to U.S. Sen. Jack Reed who helped raise money for Raimondo's campaign.
Raimondo spokeswoman Joy Fox told WPRI.com the treasurer "is supportive and encouraging of any group advocating for comprehensive pension reform that provides affordability, sustainability and security." She added: "We all have a stake in this."
McDuff and EngageRI co-chair Ed Cooney, an executive at Providence-based Nortek, were the driving forces behind establishing it, Duffy said. " ‘Truth in Numbers' was a real wake-up call to many of us," he said, referring to the treasurer's May report on the pension system. "There was a real desire to see people get involved in this."
EngageRI and the Retirement Security Coalition aren't the only ones planning to spend significant sums in an effort to influence the pension debate. Taco Inc. CEO John Hazen White says he's spending $60,000 to push for "a comprehensive set of reforms."
Another of EngageRI's coalition members is an entity called Young Rhode Islanders for Pension Reform. Its main efforts so far are a Facebook group created Sept. 9 by Matt Appenfeller, a Boston College law student who was Raimondo's director of field operations during her campaign last year, and a Twitter account.
"We have people that didn't work for the treasurer," Appenfeller told WPRI.com, saying he volunteered to take the lead after discussing the idea with friends. "It's really about reaching out and letting people see what a big deal this is. It felt like to us there wasn't really much of a youth voice in the conversation."
Asked if his group can match EngageRI's resources, Appenfeller joked that Young Rhode Islanders for Pension Reform has "a zero-figure budget."
As a nonprofit organized under section 501(c)4 of the tax code, EngageRI is classified as a tax-exempt "social welfare" organization that can raise unlimited amounts of money without publicly disclosing its contributors, though its main purpose cannot be political. EngageRI's application for 501(c)4 status is pending.
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