August 2, 2008

Carcieri Delays Insurance Increases

By Scott MacKay

The governor agrees to leave alone the share of health insurance premiums that state employees pay -- until a court hearing next week.

PROVIDENCE -- Bowing to the request of a Superior Court judge, Governor Carcieri agreed yesterday to delay putting into effect his plan to immediately impose higher health-insurance costs on thousands of unionized state employees who overwhelmingly rejected a contract proposal.

In another twist in the bitter and protracted joust between Carcieri and members of Council 94, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Superior Court Judge Patricia Hurst asked the governor to hold off on taking action against the state employees until she had time to sort out the legal issues surrounding the dispute.

"We've agreed with the judge to defer action," said Kernan King, the governor's chief legal counsel, minutes after meeting in chambers with Judge Hurst and union lawyers.

Carcieri's action came after Council 94 asked Judge Hurst for a restraining order barring the governor from taking action against the state workers represented by Council 94. Hurst set a meeting on the matter for 2 p.m. Wednesday.

Yesterday's action came one day after Carcieri issued an executive order forcing members of Council 94 and other state employee unions that rejected the recent contract offer to pay the same increased share of health-insurance premiums as members of state employee unions that approved the settlement.

Republican Carcieri's executive order came a week after Council 94 -- an umbrella organization of 24 state employee unions representing more than 4,000 workers -- emphatically voted down the contract, asserting it was unfair to lower-paid employees.

For example, Dennis Grilli, executive director of Council 94, said that 70 percent of the union's members earn $40,000 or less per year. An employee earning roughly $40,000 a year currently pays $38 per week for a family health plan. Under Carcieri's order, that would jump to $90 per week.

"That is a hardship for many of our members," said Grilli.

In addition, state employees have state pension payments totaling about 9 percent of their salaries deducted from their paychecks, Grilli said.

At issue, the union asserts, is whether Carcieri has negotiated in good faith with Council 94 leaders and whether the governor has the authority to unilaterally change the terms of an expired state labor contract without negotiations.

"The issue is, does his executive order trump the collective bargaining laws of the State of Rhode Island?" said Grilli. "We maintain he has to get the legislature to change the law; he can't decide to do it on his own."

Carcieri has refused to budge off his contract proposal that contains the increased health-insurance charges and other provisions that union leaders call unfair. The governor says the savings are needed to help balance the state budget, which has been battered by a state economic decline and the highest unemployment rate among the New England states.

Carcieri estimates the contract changes he proposed would save $10 million, which he says is needed to close a deficit of more than $400 million in a state budget of nearly $7 billion.

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Originally published by Scott MacKay, Journal Staff Writer.

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