Ballot count begins in proposed pension settlement

Counting began Friday of ballots in the first round of voting on a proposed settlement to resolve the legal challenges to Rhode Island's pension overhaul.

An outside firm started tallying the estimated 24,000 ballots that had been mailed out. The forms were due back Thursday; those that were not returned will be counted as votes in favor of the proposed settlement.

It's not clear how long the count will take. The results must first be reported to the court before they're released publicly.

The proposed settlement, announced by Gov. Lincoln Chafee and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo in February, would bring an end to the lawsuits filed by public-sector unions and retirees over the state's 2011 pension law. The deal rolls back some of the changes the law made, and provides retirees with modest benefit increases.

The settlement has to be ratified by retirees and unions members. The General Assembly would also have to approve it.

The law was designed to save Rhode Island an estimated $4 billion over the next 20 years.

The initial round of voting is for members of the unions and retiree coalitions that sued. If those groups approve the deal, a second round of voting follows. The original legal challenge will continue if any of the groups reject the agreement. A trial has been set for September.

The Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union has raised what it calls legitimate concerns with the voting process. The group takes issue with the counting of unreturned ballots in favor of the agreement, saying there are "vagaries" associated with mail balloting.

The Providence Journal has reported irregularities including the mailing of a ballot to a deceased teacher and the receipt of no ballot or multiple ballots.

State Sen. Dawson Hodgson wrote this week to Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter, who is hearing the case, to raise "grave concerns" about the balloting process, the newspaper reported.

A group of 50 retired state workers and school teachers filed a new suit Thursday objecting to their inclusion in any "class-action" settlement. They want to purse their own legal claims.

They call the pension changes in the 2011 law, including a suspension of annual cost-of-living increases, a breach of contract. The same argument was made in the original lawsuits.