Mayors, business leaders lobby Raimondo to veto union contracts bill

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Municipal and business leaders are making a last-ditch effort to convince Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo to veto a set of bills advancing in the General Assembly with the strong backing of public-sector unions.

One measure would extend municipal union contracts indefinitely if a new agreement has not been reached, while another would mandate overtime for firefighters after 42 hours of work. The overwhelmingly Democratic members of the House and Senate have strongly supported the bills.

Members of the League of Cities and Towns, including Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and Johnston Mayor Joe Polisena, met privately with Raimondo at the State House on Wednesday to plead their case. As an alternative, they have proposed temporary contract extensions if both sides agree.

Raimondo spokesperson Josh Block said she and the local leaders had “an open conversation.”

“As she has said before, the governor is focused on striking a balance between what is fair to municipal employees and what is fair to taxpayers,” Block said.

Raimondo vetoed a similar bill on contracts in 2017, but sponsors of this year’s version say they made changes to address her concerns, and she has indicated she is leaning toward signing it this time. Brian Daniels, the municipal league’s executive director, rejected the argument.

“The language is reworded but has the same end result – a big loss for the taxpayers,” he said. “With employee health care and pension costs rising, perpetual contracts will make it harder for local officials to gain concessions, and the taxpayers will be forced to pick up the tab.”

Also on Wednesday, representatives of six local business organizations sent a letter to Raimondo urging her to reject the legislation. “Allowing this legislation to become law is contradictory to controlling the cost of local government and detrimental to the state’s business climate,” they wrote.

They warned Raimondo the bills would “create significant pressure to raise property taxes across the state” and “threaten any progress that has been made during your tenure as governor to create a more business-friendly environment for Rhode Island.”

The letter was signed by leaders of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, the Rhode Island Association of Realtors, the Rhode Island Small Business Economic Summit, the Rhode Island Society of Certified Public Accountants and the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce.

A spokesperson for the National Education Association Rhode Island (NEARI) teachers union declined to respond to the letter. Union officials have repeatedly argued the contracts bill reflects longstanding practice in Rhode Island and would protect workers during drawn-out negotiations.

Robert Walsh, executive director of NEARI, said last month on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers that the bill is partly aimed at ending a disparity between public-safety and other municipal workers, because the former have binding arbitration for contracts while the latter do not.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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