Municipalities sue over new public employee contracts law

November 12, 2019 GMT

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Sixteen Rhode Island municipalities announced Tuesday they’re suing the governor and legislative leaders over a new law that automatically extends expired municipal worker and teacher contracts.

The municipalities said they’re suing the Democratic governor, House speaker and Senate president because they say the law violates the state constitution, strips them of their authority to negotiate and will likely lead to higher taxes.

Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a Republican, said that as the costs of health care, pensions and retiree benefits continue to rise, taxpayers will “get crushed” if local leaders can’t renegotiate those benefits. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, a Democrat, said the law “ties our hands” and puts further constraints on already limited resources, “setting us up for fruitless and difficult negotiations with our public employees.”

Gov. Gina Raimondo’s spokesman, Josh Block, said they haven’t fully reviewed the lawsuit yet, but the legislation passed by the General Assembly was narrowly tailored to return to what was the status quo for decades in Rhode Island and they’re confident the law will stand.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio released a joint statement calling the law “fair to both sides.”

“We’re disappointed that some local leaders have chosen to take the unusual step of suing the General Assembly and the governor,” they said in the statement.

Raimondo signed the House and Senate versions of a bill to automatically extend expired public employee contracts in May. She said then it was a fair compromise that protects workers’ wages and benefits from unilateral cuts after a contract expires, while not binding municipalities to other provisions of the expired contract.

She vetoed a similar plan in 2017.

The municipalities are represented by former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras. The municipalities of Barrington, Bristol, Burrillville, Central Falls, Charlestown, Cranston, East Greenwich, Lincoln, Little Compton, North Kingstown, North Providence, North Smithfield, Pawtucket, Providence, Smithfield and Woonsocket are suing.

They’re asking a Superior Court judge to declare that the law violates the provisions in the state constitution that prevents the state from enacting laws impairing the obligation of contracts and that grants cities and towns the authority to decide local matters. They want an injunction so the law can’t be enforced.