PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Governor Gina Raimondo has vetoed legislation that would have guaranteed disability pensions — paying two-thirds pay, tax free for life — to firefighters with heart conditions.
In her veto message to lawmakers, Raimondo said: “Firefighters provide an enormously important public service to the people of Rhode Island, often at significant risk to their own personal health and safety. Reflecting the clear risk inherent in this work, firefighters are currently able to receive an accidental disability pension for these conditions if the conditions are directly work-related and there is sufficient evidence to justify the benefit.”
But this legislation would, in effect, require the Municipal Employees Retirement System (MERS) and the Workers’ Compensation Court (which handles appeals of MERS decisions) to disregard relevant evidence, including the opinions of examining physicians.”
“This policy change would mark an extraordinary departure from current practice, exposing MERS to significant new liability and resulting in increased pension costs to cities and towns,” she said.
“It is critical that the State provide municipalities with as many tools as possible to control costs, maintain sound fiscal footing, and balance budgets without the need to raise taxes on homeowners and businesses,” she said.
“This legislation moves Rhode Island in the opposite direction: It would create a significant new unfunded local pension benefit that would cost millions of dollars annually in new pension obligations for cities and towns — likely resulting in simultaneous property tax increases … For this reason, the League of Cities and Towns, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, and the Rhode Island Business Coalition have all asked for my veto of this legislation — as have a dozen mayors and town managers representing communities across our state,” she said.
It was not immediately clear if state lawmakers would seek to override her veto.
The vetoed legislation cleared the General Assembly during last week’s special-session, despite state Treasurer Seth Magaziner’s warnings that it would heap a potential $2.3 million to $2.8 million in additional costs on the cities and towns, and effectively prohibit the state’s pension administrators from even questioning if the heart condition was work-related.
The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns also objected strenuously, nothing that heart disease — “the leading cause of death in our country” is “attributable to numerous causes, including diet, exercise, smoking, family history and numerous other factors. Given the prevalence of heart disease, it is not a valid presumption that any heart disease among firefighters is necessarily work-related.”
The sponsors: senators Frank Lombardi, D-Cranston, Frank Ciccone, D-Providence, Walter Felag, D-Warren, James Doyle, D-Pawtucket, and Joshua Miller, D-Cranston. (A matching House bill, sponsored by Rep. Robert Craven, D-North Kingstown, never made it through the Senate.)
Democrat Raimondo allowed another disability pension bill championed by organized labor to become law without her signature in July.
That new law equates an “illness sustained while in the performance of duty” with an on-the-job injury, potentially qualifying many more police and firefighters for two-thirds pay, tax-free disability pensions for life.
Explaining her decision on that bill, Raimondo said: the Retirement Board “already considers an illness sustained by a police officer or firefighter as a result of a specific, identifiable accident on the job a qualifying condition for purposes of an accidental disability pension, providing that sufficient medical … evidence is presented to establish a causal chain between the illness or injury and the on-the-job accident.”
In her veto message, Raimondo echoed arguments that Magaziner raised to lawmakers a day before their Sept. 19 cleanup session, and later, to her.
In a Sept. 20 letter to Raimondo, Magaziner wrote: “Public employees who are permanently injured in the course of their employment should receive accidental disability benefits … [But] it is crucial that accidental disability benefits only be awarded when the evidence clearly warrants such an award.”
“The bill’s proponents argue that there is still recourse for the Retirement Board to rebut an award if there is “clear and convincing evidence” that the condition is not work-related, however this is understood to be an extremely high legal standard which, in practice, would make consideration of lifestyle factors and independent medical opinions virtually impossible.”
The proponents have also “argued that other states have similar presumption laws for heart conditions, however the statutes in many of those states include additional safeguards, such as exclusions for smokers and disability benefits that convert to ordinary pensions when the member reached regular retirement age.” This legislation does not.
On Twitter: @kathyprojo