While we must be wary of giving credit-rating agencies the power to dictate the legislation of our elected representatives, Rhode Islanders should contemplate the significance of this development, which Katherine Gregg reports in the Providence Journal:
A warning from one of the nation’s largest credit-rating agencies, Moody’s Investors Service, has revived the debate over the union-backed continuing-contract legislation that Gov. Gina Raimondo signed last month over the objections of city and town leaders.
The new continuing-contract law indefinitely locks in wages and benefits in expired public-employee contracts. The teacher union lobbyists who took the lead in pushing the bill said it was aimed at preventing cities and towns from unilaterally slashing pay or making employees pay more for their health insurance during deadlocked negotiations.
“The law has the potential to provide collective bargaining units with advantages in negotiations,’’ Moody’s public-finance division wrote in a special report out Thursday that echoed one of the biggest concerns raised by Rhode Island mayors and town administrators.
Moody’s worries that the law may be “a significant impediment to local governments’ ability to negotiate labor contracts,” and as a local elected official participating in negotiations, I can confirm that to be the case. It isn’t just a matter of unions’ refusing to make concessions that help government agencies balance their budgets.
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The legislation — and even just the fact of its passage, along with the firefighter overtime bill — is already shutting off areas of discussion. A municipality and union trying to balance current expenses with employees’ long-term interests can’t trust that the state won’t change the rules out from under them. Even in a situation when the current members of a particular union have long demonstrated a desire to work cooperatively with management, decision-makers can’t consider only that relationship, but must worry about the unknowns of what future union members might do and how union-friendly legislators might change the rules on their behalf.
As with so much in Rhode Island government, the legislature and governor have demonstrated that they don’t take the broad, long-term effects of their actions into consideration. One imagines that if they were ever to acknowledge the law of unintended consequences, they’d move swiftly to pass legislation repealing it.