Cup of (Pro)Jo: April 13, 2011

The unexpected $1.4 billion pension gap in the Rhode Island budget may have “enormous” effects on the state infrastructure. The state pension system relies on three factors: stock market returns, employee contributions and employer contributions. Consultants will present these findings to the Rhode Island Retirement Board this morning. The gap comes from “overly optimistic” assumptions about returns from the stock market.  To bridge the gap for the 50,000 expected retirees, taxpayers and the state need to double their current contributions by fiscal year 2012. Taxpayers’ taxes would rise 9.79 percent to 36.34 percent of income to support state workers’ pensions. State and local taxes toward teachers’ pensions would increase by 9.04 percent, to 35.25 percent of payroll. Infrastructure expected to be effected includes public schools, road work and medical care.

A bill to restore full jurisdiction power over state legislators to the Rhode Island Ethics Commission was met with mixed opinion at a Senate hearing on Tuesday. The commission lost the ability to prosecute legislators for bias in a 2009 Supreme Court case that ruled that legislators should be exempt from being accused of breaking the code of ethics in any official act, under the speech-and-debate clause of the Rhode Island constitution. Supporters of the bill, who came from groups such as Common Cause, Operation Clean Government and the Ethics Commission itself, said giving the commission jurisdiction over legislators would set a fair example for other state employees, who are currently liable for investigation by the commission. Opponents of the bill, like Steven Brown, president of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the bill would stop legislators from truthfully voicing and voting their constituents’ concerns on important issues because there could be a conflict of personal interest. Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed’s spokesman has said she supports this bill, though an identical bill was not voted on in the Senate last year.

Tensions are rising at the House over gay marriage bills as concerns about the budget escalate. There is no scheduled date for a vote on bills to legalize gay marriage or put the issue to a public referendum. On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Robert Watson called for a House vote on the bill to legalize gay marriage before the April recess so legislators could return to zero in on the state budget. “Once and for all, Mr. Speaker, we should get our focus on the budget,” he said. Speaker of the House Gordon Fox “swiftly” ruled Watson out of order and noted his “support of gay marriage.” Watson has declared opposition to legalizing gay marriage.

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