PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Mayors and town managers in Rhode Island are hanging their hopes on Gov. Gina Raimondo, after a package of bills were sent to her desk Thursday evening that benefit public-sector labor unions.
The legislation includes the continuing contracts, or “evergreen” contracts bill, which would allow expired municipal and teachers union contracts to continue indefinitely until a new contract deal is reached. Another pair of bills would mandate firefighters receive overtime for hours above 42 in an average week.
The House and Senate had already both overwhelmingly approved the bills, and each passed the other chamber’s versions on Thursday before transmitting them to the governor.
Raimondo vetoed a similar “evergreen” contracts bill in 2017, writing in her veto message that it put taxpayers at risk of being “forever locked into contractual provisions they can no longer afford.”
The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, leading the charge against the legislation, argues that premise is still true despite the re-write.
“We definitely think it’s just as bad as two years ago,” executive director Brian Daniels said in an interview with Eyewitness News. “They changed the wording, they framed it differently.”
The previous bill extended all contract provisions, with the exception of those banning layoffs, during a negotiation after a contract expires. The current bill does the same during arbitration in a contract dispute, but extends only “wages and benefits” if there is still an impasse after arbitration and mediation efforts are finished.
Daniels was in a closed-door meeting Wednesday with Raimondo and the leaders of multiple cities and towns including Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, Central Falls Mayor James Diossa, Johnston Mayor Joe Polisena and Lincoln town administrator Joseph Almond. He said the group urged the governor to veto the measure again, arguing that it will be impossible to negotiate contracts during an economic downturn if the unions can keep their previous contracts in place.
“This is going to make it a lot harder to get concessions, and those costs are going to land on the taxpayer,” Daniels said.
The league also sent Raimondo a letter on Thursday taking issue with her characterization in comments to the Providence Journal that the mayors understood the new bill to be better than the one she vetoed.
“Our members are clear that the current legislation in no way represents an improvement over the version you vetoed in 2017,” Daniels wrote. “Nothing stated in yesterday’s meeting should be interpreted that way.”
Daniels said Raimondo, who is in New York receiving an “Outstanding Mother” award, had not yet responded to the letter.
Raimondo’s press secretary Josh Block said in a statement on Thursday: “The Governor and mayors had a wide-ranging conversation that included discussion of provisions that had been removed from the 2017 version of the bill. As the Governor acknowledged yesterday, the mayors still have legitimate concerns and she appreciated the opportunity to hear directly from them.”
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello aimed to dispel those concerns in an interview after the floor vote Thursday, arguing that taxpayers wouldn’t be harmed by legislation to extend expired contracts because new contracts usually increase in value anyway due to inflation.
“Put it this way,” Mattiello said. “If it did create a ‘forever’ contract, good for the taxpayers because they’re going to be paying 2019 prices in 2029 and they’ll save a lot of money. That would never happen.”
Sen. Frank Ciccone also tried to disprove the theory that unions would turn contract extenstions into “lifetime” contracts during the Seante floor debate, where he held up a stack of Rhode Island General Laws related to unfair labor practices and contract disputes.
“If either side is not doing their job or not coming to the table, there is a remedy,” Ciccone said. “It seems that everybody’s saying they’re gonna be there forever. They’re not.”