Oct 24, 2011 4:08 AM GMT
ON the night of Sept. 8, Gina M. Raimondo, a financier by trade, rolled up here with news no one wanted to hear: Rhode Island, she declared, was going broke.
Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow. But if current trends held, Ms. Raimondo warned, the Ocean State would soon look like Athens on the Narragansett: undersized and overextended. Its economy would wither. Jobs would vanish. The state would be hollowed out.
It is not the sort of message you might expect from Ms. Raimondo, a proud daughter of Providence, a successful venture capitalist and, not least, the current general treasurer of Rhode Island. But it is a message worth hearing. The smallest state in the union, it turns out, has a very big debt problem.
After decades of drift, denial and inaction, Rhode Island’s $14.8 billion pension system is in crisis. Ten cents of every state tax dollar now goes to retired public workers. Before long, Ms. Raimondo has been cautioning in whistle-stops here and across the state, that figure will climb perilously toward 20 cents. But the scary thing is that no one really knows. The Providence Journal recently tried to count all the municipal pension plans outside the state system and stopped at 155, conceding that it might have missed some. Even the Securities and Exchange Commission is asking questions, including the big one: Are these numbers for real?
“We’re in the fight of our lives for the future of this state,” Ms. Raimondo said in a recent interview. And if the fight is lost? “Either the pension fund runs out of money or cities go bankrupt.”
All of this might seem small in the scheme of national affairs. After all, this is Little Rhody (population: 1,052,567). But the nightmare scenario is that Ms. Raimondo has seen the future of America, and it is Rhode Island. As Wall Street fixates on the financial disaster in Greece, a fiscal wreck is playing out right here. And the odds are that it won’t be the last. Before this is over, many Americans may be forced to rethink what government means at the state and local level.
Economists have talked endlessly about a financial reckoning for the United States, of a moment in the not-so-far-away when the nation’s profligate ways catch up with it. But for Rhode Island, that moment is now. The state has moved to safeguard its bond investors, to avoid being locked out of the credit markets. Last week, the General Assembly went into special session and proposed rolling back benefits for public employees, including those who have already retired. Whether the plan will succeed is anyone’s guess.
Central Falls, a small city north of Providence, didn’t wait for news from the Statehouse. In August, the city filed for bankruptcy rather than keep its pension promises to its retired firefighters and police officers.
Illinois, California, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Michigan — the list of stretched states runs on. In Pennsylvania, the capital city, Harrisburg, filed for bankruptcy earlier this month to avoid having to use prized assets to pay off Wall Street creditors. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie wants to roll back benefits, too.
In most places, as in Rhode Island, the big issue is pensions. By conventional measures, state and local pensions nationwide now face a combined shortfall of about $3 trillion. Officials argue that, by their accounting, the total is far less. But with pensions, hope often triumphs over experience. Until this year, Rhode Island calculated its pension numbers by assuming that its various funds would post an average annual return on their investments of 8.25 percent; the real number for the last decade is about 2.4 percent. A phrase that gets thrown around here, à la Rick Perry describing Social Security, is “Ponzi scheme.”
That evening in September, Ms. Raimondo walked into the Cranston Portuguese Club to face yet another angry audience. People like Paul L. Valletta Jr., the head of Local 1363 of the firefighters union.
“I want to get the biggest travesty out of the way here,” Mr. Valletta boomed from the back of the hall. “You’re going after the retirees! In this economic time, how could you possibly take a pension away?”
Someone else in the audience said Rhode Island was reneging on a moral obligation.
Ms. Raimondo, 40, stood her ground. Rhode Island, she said, had a choice: it could pay for schoolbooks, roadwork, care for the elderly and so on, or it could keep every promise to its retirees.
“I would ask you, is it morally right to do nothing, and not provide services to the state’s most vulnerable citizens?” she asked the crowd. “Yes, sir, I think this is moral.”
FOR many Americans, the Ocean State conjures images of Newport mansions and Narragansett chic. The overall reality is more prosaic. Rhode Island today is a place where the roads and bridges rank among the worst in the nation and where jobs are particularly hard to find. Unemployment rose faster during the 2008-9 recession than in any other state. The official jobless rate is now 10.6 percent, versus the national average of 9.1 percent.
The textile mills and jewelry manufacturers that once employed thousands here have dwindled away. The big employers today are in health care and education, both of which rely heavily on government spending that has been drying up.
Many states and cities can credibly say their pension plans are viable, even when those plans are not fully funded. That is because state retirement funds, like Social Security, pay out benefits bit by bit, over many years.
But unlike, say, California, with its large, diverse economy, Rhode Island is so small that there is little margin for error. Leaving the state, to escape its taxes, is almost as easy as moving to the other side of town. Efforts to balance the state budget by shrinking the public work force have left Rhode Island with a problem like the one that plagues General Motors: the state has more public-sector retirees than public-sector workers.