‘Evergreen’ contracts bill passes House, faces opposition from municipal leaders

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Several local municipal leaders gathered at the State House Library on Monday afternoon to voice bipartisan opposition to the so-called “evergreen” contracts bill, which overwhelmingly passed the full House of Representatives on Tuesday.

House Bill 5437 extends wages and benefits for teachers and municipal leaders while a new deal is being negotiated. Senate Bill 512 was on the Senate Labor Committee’s docket Wednesday.

The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns hosted Monday’s press conference, which featured short speeches from Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, among others.

Press Secretary Josh Block told the Sun Rise via email Tuesday morning that Gov. Gina Raimondo, who vetoed a similar version of the bill in 2017, is continuing to discuss the matter with municipal leaders and unions.

“Municipal leaders and employees have been successful in reaching compromise through collective bargaining, and Gov. Raimondo is committee to maintaining a fair and equitable process for all involved,” Block said. “In her 2017 veto, the governor outlined recommendations for improving the bill and bringing it in-line with existing policy in neighboring states. The proposal currently before the legislature is different than the 2017 bill and takes into account these recommendations.”

Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson, sponsor of the legislation, said Wednesday she took into consideration the governor’s objections in redrafting the bill this year. She said she narrowed the scope of the bill to wages and benefits. The measure would not apply to layoff limitations that are frequently a provision of teacher contracts, thereby giving school committees unrestricted ability to layoff teachers at the end of a contract. She feels this would serve as an incentive for the union to negotiate.

Asked if she thought by applying the roll over to wages and benefits municipalities might argue they are not subject to retroactive pay increases in the case of prolonged negotiations, Vella Wilkinson said that would be subject to good faith bargaining.

Vella-Wilkinson took issue with the characterization of the bill as “evergreen,” saying that “roll over” as it applies to wages and benefits is more accurate.

She said neither the mayor nor members of the city council and school committee about the bill did not contact her.

There was one common theme among the voices who spoke against the bill – it would “handcuff” cities and towns during negotiations.

Fung expressed that concern, saying it could be detrimental if municipalities needed to engage in concession bargaining with unions.

“This bill, in particular, would hamper many of us because it would just lead to many unions or even employees just sitting back on what they have, and that’s the real, real practical impact of what these bills, if passed, would do,” Fung said, adding that he hoped taxpayers would contact their legislators to urge a negative vote.

Fung repeatedly said he and other local leaders are frustrated, emphasizing that the bill is causing anxiety across party lines.

“This isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue, it’s an issue that cuts on every single line in every city and town across Rhode Island,” he said. “We’ve had enough and we need action.”

Fung also responded to the layoffs provision in the bill, which League of Cities and Towns Executive Director Brian Daniels referred to as the “nuclear clause.” Fung said he didn’t want to have to lay people off to bring unions back to the negotiating table.

“It’s not like you’re going to have no disruption because you’re laying people off,” he said. “You’re going to have disruption in that department where layoffs are happening.”

Polisena repeated a suggestion he first made during an interview with the Sun Rise last week, saying that the town might as well “shut the lights off, give the unions the keys and give them the checkbooks” if the bill passes.

“It’s all over, ladies and gentlemen,” he said.

Polisena went as far as to guarantee that property taxes would increase if the proposal became law. He said that he and other town leaders usually continue contracts during negotiations, but added that the bill “really puts a gun to our head.”

“This is not personal. This is not an anti-union bill. This is anti-taxpayer,” he said. “I settled a contract two weeks ago with one of the unions in 45 minutes. It was nice and easy. With this, it will make it much more difficult. If this is allowed to become law, this will clearly put every city and town at a clear disadvantage when it comes to negotiations.”

Polisena sent letters to members of the Johnston delegation in the House and Senate on April 18, urging their votes against the legislation. He told the assembled media on Monday that, if he’s forced to raise taxes in Johnston, the blame would go to the General Assembly.

All four Johnston representatives in House – Mario Mendez (Dist. 13, Johnston, Providence), Deborah A. Fellela (Dist. 43, Johnston), Stephen R. Ucci (Dist. 42, Johnston, Cranston) and Gregory Constantino (Dist. 44, Johnston, Lincoln, Smithfield) – voted in favor of the legislation Tuesday.

“If they choose to support this bill, when I have to raise taxes, their names will be on the tax bill,” he said. “Absolutely. And I’ll also hang a letter in the tax office where people pay their taxes. The tax increase is because of their General Assembly members, who they voted for, voted for this bill. This will definitely, positively raise taxes.”

He told the delegation in his letter that the bill would allow unions to “dictate the terms, conditions and costs” for future collective bargaining agreements, or CBAs.

“Collective bargaining agreements have a specific term to them for the common sense reason that community needs change and costs increase in many areas most especially healthcare,” Polisena wrote. “This legislation means that as community needs evolve and benefit costs increase, municipalities will be denied the ability to address these changing needs and additional costs for the town.”

Elorza said the bill would have a “damaging and crushing effect” as towns sought to create their budgets. North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi said it would “tie our hands” and that he and other leaders were begging senators and representatives to stand by them.

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