PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo delivered two victories to Rhode Island's public-sector unions on Tuesday, signing a bill to keep expired contracts in place during negotiations while also allowing a measure on firefighter overtime to take effect without her signature.
Mayors and other municipal leaders had mounted a major lobbying campaign to convince the governor to reject the bills, which passed the Democratic-dominated General Assembly by overwhelming veto-proof majorities. But in the end the labor leaders pushing for the proposals won out.
Raimondo blocked a previous version of the contract-continuation bill back in 2017, but wrote in her veto message at the time that she would be open to signing if changes were made. The governor has recently said she felt this year's version was different enough to allay her concerns, though municipal leaders have strongly disputed whether the changes are significant.
In a two-page letter that accompanied her signature on the contracts bill, Raimondo described it as "a middle ground," emphasizing that only current wages and benefits would continue after a contract expires when a new deal has not yet been reached.
"Honoring wages and benefits in an expired contract is standard practice in the private sector and in other states," the governor wrote. "Moreover, this bill does not make us an outlier, as our neighboring states have statutory labor protections that go even further than this bill, including binding arbitration for teachers in Massachusetts and Connecticut."
The firefighter bill would make firefighters eligibile for overtime after working 42 hours, which municipal leaders say would make it impossible for them to cost effectively switch to a three-platoon system. (The federal standard for firefighters is overtime pay after 53 hours.)
Raimondo declined to sign or veto the overtime bill, which means it will become law without her signature. She did not write a letter explaining her decision.
Brian Daniels, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, noted that Rhode Island currently has the sixth-highest property tax burden in the country. "Today's decision by the governor to enact this legislation only makes the difficult task facing community leaders that much harder," he said in a statement.
"The General Assembly has already stacked the deck against cities and towns with longstanding unfunded mandates such as binding arbitration, unreasonable disability pensions and more," Daniels said. "These new bills only make it harder for municipal leaders to negotiate contracts and make decisions in the best interests of the taxpayers. Rhode Islanders will come to regret today’s decision by the governor, with property taxpayers living with the negative impacts long after she has left office."
The National Education Association Rhode Island teachers union, which endorsed Raimondo for re-election last year, said in a statement: "On behalf of the 12,000 members of NEARI, we thank Governor Gina Raimondo for signing into law continuing contract legislation that restores the balance between the rights of workers and the rights of employers."
The Rhode Island Republican Party criticized Raimondo's decision.
"A large portion of municipal budgets are personnel costs, with pension and OPEB obligations increasing exponentially," GOP Chair Sue Cienki said in a statement, referencing other post-employment benefits like retiree health care. "Cities and towns are being squeezed. The governor has tied the hands of municipal leaders. Stop the charade and just hand over the keys to the special interests, taxpayers are irrelevant."