The Democrat Who Took on the Unions
Gina Raimondo rocks! (And shows that Democrats can successfully take on the unions, even in Democratic-leaning states.)
So this is Gina Raimondo? The state treasurer who single-handedly overhauled Rhode Island's pension system and has unions screaming bloody murder? I had imagined her a bit, well, bigger. If not larger than life like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, then at least life-size. Ms. Raimondo couldn't be much taller than five feet, which may have caused some to underestimate her. That isn't the only thing that may have surprised people.
The former venture capitalist is a Democrat, which means that she believes in government as a force for good. But "a government that doesn't work is in no one's interest," she says. "Budgets that don't balance, public programs that aren't funded, pension funds that are running out of money, schools that aren't funded—How does that help anyone? I don't really care if you're a Republican or Democrat or you want to fight about the size of government. How about a government that just works? Put your tax dollar in and get a return out the other end."
Yes, that would be nice. Unfortunately, public pensions all over the country are gobbling up more and more taxpayer money and producing nothing in return but huge deficits. It's not even certain whether employees in their 20s and 30s will retire with a pension, since many state and municipal pension systems are projected to run dry in the next two to three decades.
That included Rhode Island's system until last year, when Ms. Raimondo drove perhaps the boldest pension reform of the last decade through the state's Democratic-controlled General Assembly. The new law shifts all workers from defined-benefit pensions into hybrid plans, which include a modest annuity and a defined-contribution component. It also increases the retirement age to 67 from 62 for all workers and suspends cost-of-living adjustments for retirees until the pension system, which is only about 50% funded, reaches a more healthy state.
Several states have increased the retirement age or created a new tier of benefits for future workers, but reforms that only affect not-yet-hired employees don't save much money. A lot of "people say we've done pension reform when all they've done is tweaked something," Ms. Raimondo points out. "This problem will not go away, and I don't know what people are thinking. By the nature of the problem, it gets bigger and harder the longer you wait."
The problem was particularly acute in Rhode Island since there are more retirees collecting pensions than workers paying into the system. Plus, as Ms. Raimondo says, "it's a small state with not a lot of growth, an expensive cost structure in government, and it's not a good combination." Making the state even more expensive by raising taxes would have caused many Rhode Islanders to leave. When the now-bankrupt town of Central Falls raised property taxes to finance worker pensions, many residents fled, sending the city into a tailspin.
- THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW
- Updated March 25, 2012, 12:42 p.m. ET