Pension settlement would leave central question unanswered

Rhode Island's proposed pension settlement would end a lawsuit, but some had hoped it would also settle the question of whether the state can change pension terms.

But lawyers in the case say even a trial wouldn't have answered that question, which affects 60,000 working and retired teachers and government workers.

When it became clear both sides were seeking a settlement that would avoid a trial, many were upset the courts would not deliver a final ruling on the question of whether the legislature has the right to reduce benefits.

But three of the lawyers in the case, speaking on this week's "10 News Conference," agreed that letting the case go through the court system would not necessarily deliver a final answer.

"The idea that we would have gotten a definitive ruling that would have lasted for all time -- I've been in this business for a while and that doesn't usually happen," said Lynette Labinger, an attorney for various unions.

What made both sides come together to support the adjusted pension reform is the avoidance of the lawsuit, putting to rest any question over what a trial might produce. But as Director of Administration Richard Licht explained, there's no promise a trial would even settle that question.

"There are people criticizing this, saying why don't you get that answer? We could go through this whole trial for years and years and years. We'll get a result, but we might not get an answer to that question because it can be decided on other grounds," said Licht, who's negotiating for the state.

Attorney Mark Dingley of the General Treasurer's Office said a ruling could be made based on conditions that are not universal.

"The ultimate legal question the court has to answer is, was this change reasonable and necessary for an important public purpose? That's not an answer that you can say 'yes' or 'no' to and it decides all future cases. It's based on the facts that occurred in 2011, circumstances of the state, circumstances of the legislature, and so forth," Dingley said.

Now begins a process of getting approval, first from the unions that were in the suit, and then from all retirees. That's before the General Assembly needs to pass a new law to create the proposed changes.