- Associated Press - Monday, February 10, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Attorneys for the state and its public unions have reached a proposed settlement to end the legal challenge to Rhode Island’s landmark pension overhaul - but the public will have to wait for the details.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Treasurer Gina Raimondo delivered a closed-door briefing to top lawmakers Monday. Citing a court-imposed gag order Chafee and Raimondo both declined to comment, but House Speaker Gordon Fox confirmed that the briefing concerned a possible deal to end the legal challenge to the 2011 pension law.

“The highlights were given to us,” Fox, D-Providence, told reporters following the 90-minute meeting. “A lot to digest. We need to think about it.”

A press conference has been called for Wednesday for lawyers on both sides of the case to update the public on settlement talks. The case has been in closed-door mediation for more than a year after public-sector unions and retirees challenged the law.

Also on Wednesday, the board of the state’s Employees’ Retirement System is scheduled to discuss and possibly vote on what its agenda calls a proposed settlement in the case.

Rhode Island had one of the worst-funded pension systems in the nation before lawmakers passed the 2011 law, which raised retirement ages, suspended pension increases and made other changes to save billions of dollars in future pension costs. It has served as a model for lawmakers in other states looking to rein in their pension systems. The resulting legal fight has been closely watched by unions, state officials and financial analysts around the country.

Lawmakers must sign off on a settlement for it to take effect.

Any deal could significantly change the state’s public retirement system and increase pension costs by millions of dollars every year and would have to be approved by the General Assembly. Lawmakers have expressed frustration about how the fate of the law - passed after months of public hearings and debates - was being decided in closed-door negotiations.

“The most strange and unusual process,” Fox said Monday.

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed and other legislative leaders also attended the Monday meeting. Chafee’s and Raimondo’s offices have been involved in the mediation, but the General Assembly has not.

Raimondo, a Democrat who leads the retirement board and was the top supporter of the pension overhaul, declined to comment through a spokeswoman. Raimondo also is a candidate for governor and has campaigned on her work to pass the law.

Chafee cited the gag order when he declined to answer questions.

“Until that’s lifted we’ll abide by it,” said Chafee, a Democrat.

Monday’s statement by the federal mediator gave few details, other than to describe Wednesday’s news conference as an “update.”

“The parties are continuing to work cooperatively, and it is the appropriate time to update Rhode Islanders,” wrote John Arnold, a spokesman for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

Dan Beardsley, director of the state’s League of Cities and Towns and a member of the state retirement board, said he’s eager to see the details of the proposal, which might demand that cities and towns set aside millions of additional dollars for pensions.

“Any proposal that increases the local share for school teachers, for government workers, we’re going to have some serious concerns about,” he said.

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