PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - When Gov. Lincoln Almond went looking for ways to cut the state budget last summer, he targeted the state's pension system.
Now, members of a commission that has spent months considering pension reform say the governor might have been off the mark in his claims that the state is too generous with its public employees.
"The more I looked at the pension system, the more I realized it really is a sound system," said Sen. John Roney, D-Providence, a member of the pension reform commission.
Rhode Island offers more generous pension benefits than most other states, but only because, "Most of the money is coming from the employees," said Robert Carl Jr., director of the state Department of Administration.
Commission members, including Messrs. Roney and Carl, said a study done for the panel by consultant William Mercer & Co., Boston, shows about 4% of the state's payroll costs go to fund the system - a figure on par with many other public pension systems and below the amount contributed by many private-sector firms.
Another 6% of the state payroll cost goes to paying down the unfunded liability. That payment makes the total state contribution to the pension fund about 10% of payroll costs.
An audit earlier this year put the liability around $1.1 billion. Since discovering seven years ago that the pension fund was heading for a major shortfall, the state has been diverting about $60 million a year to make up the difference and is scheduled to be fully funded around 2017.
Mr. Roney said he believes it is important for the state to pay down the liability while continuing its current contribution level.
"It does not appear that the amount the state contributes to the pension system, quite apart from the unfunded liability, is out of line with other states," Mr. Roney said.
Rep. Antonio Pires, D-Pawtucket, chairman of the House Finance Committee and a member of the pension commission, agreed.
"The cost of the system has been described as generous, however the cost of the state's share of that is described as modest," he said. "The reason you've got a generous system and a modest contribution is that the employees' contribution is very high."
Gov. Almond declined to comment until a final report is issued by the panel, perhaps in May.
"He's not going to react to things people on the commission are saying," spokesman Jim Taricani said.
Last summer, Gov. Almond had plenty to say. Then, his aggressive public campaign for pension reform angered the approximately 26,000 state workers and teachers and 16,800 retirees covered by the system.
With state legislators opposing Gov. Almond's proposed changes, the governor compromised and the Legislature passed a budget bill that included a provision increasing the portion of their salaries that employees contribute to the pension system by one percentage point. The state contribution was decreased by the same amount.
"We believe he was wrong from the beginning," said Harvey Press, president of the National Education Association-Rhode Island. "We've been very close to the pension issue over the years and as a result we had more working knowledge than some of the people who have used, and are still using, it as a political football."
Mr. Carl said the governor may not have known the whole truth last summer.
"I'm not sure (Gov. Almond) had all the information," Mr. Carl said.
"The governor is looking for ways to save money. I believe he was advised that there were substantial savings to be had in the pension system. I don't think it was good advice....
"Nothing we've seen to date suggests to me that a tweaking of the present system would result in a substantial short-term savings for the state."