- Associated Press - Monday, June 1, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Only two people testified in opposition of the settlement terms for a deal in the legal fight over the state’s public pension system overhaul during the General Assembly’s first hearing on the agreement Monday.

The Senate Finance Committee met for a rare Monday hearing to consider the settlement terms. The General Assembly typically meets Tuesday through Thursday.

Senate staff expected a lengthy public testimony portion. About 400 people filed written objections for a recent multiday Superior Court hearing, held by a judge determining whether the proposed pension settlement is fair. Seventy people signed up to testify in court and about half of them did, according to attorney John Tarantino, who represents the state.

Nine people spoke before the finance committee Monday, with two in opposition. Some submitted written testimony with concerns.

“They did have their day in court,” Tarantino said when asked about the quiet reception to the deal. “They may have felt they said their piece.”

Tarantino answered the committee’s questions while Treasurer Seth Magaziner and others urged the members to accept the terms so the state can move on and avoid an expensive, lengthy trial.

“At a time when we are working together to rebuild Rhode Island’s economy, we cannot afford to be bogged down by a multiyear, multibillion dollar financial uncertainty,” Magaziner said. “Today we have an opportunity to put the troubles of the past behind us.”

A judicial system employee, Elizabeth Del Padre, said she opposes the deal because employees eligible to retire by years of service are returned to the state’s defined benefit plan so they get a specific monthly amount when they retire, while employees eligible to retire by age are treated differently. The system rewards people with higher years of service, irrespective of age.

William Murphy, a college professor, said he was concerned the settlement could create new contract rights and prevent future pension reforms from holding up in court.

Public sector unions and retirees sued over higher retirement ages and cuts to cost-of-living increases designed to save the state $4 billion over 20 years. The state struck a deal with most defendants to preserve about 90 percent of the savings from the 2011 reform.

The pension reform was done legislatively so the terms have to be incorporated into the law. Ten current senators weren’t in office when the pension overhaul was approved.

One member of that group, Sen. Leonidas Raptakis, said he wants to examine the settlement further before deciding whether to support it, to make sure the General Assembly doesn’t have to revisit the issue in five or 10 years. The Coventry Democrat said he’s concerned about underfunding the pension system.

Sen. Gayle Goldin, a Providence Democrat who was elected in 2012, said she’s inclined to support the settlement since it’s a negotiated deal to which most of the parties agreed.

About 59,000 past and present state employees would be affected by the deal. Unions representing municipal police, Cranston police and Cranston fire, which collectively represent about 800 people, did not accept the terms.

The total cost of the settlement is about $300 million. It provides for cost-of-living increases and one-time stipends for retirees.

The cap for calculating the benefits would increase for some retirees, and the calculation would be based on a new formula using both the performance of investments and the Consumer Price Index.

Employees would be allowed to retire earlier if they meet set requirements.

Judge Sarah Taft-Carter hasn’t ruled yet on whether the proposed pension settlement is fair. The House Finance Committee is meeting Wednesday for its first hearing on the revisions to the retirement provisions.

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