Firefighter unions have spent liberally on R.I. legislative races

Since 2007, the R.I. State Association of Firefighters has logged more than $290,413 on political spending


Katherine Gregg
The Providence Journal, R.I.

PROVIDENCE — Few interest groups have been more generous to Rhode Island lawmakers than the firefighters' lobby, which is pushing controversial overtime legislation up for a House vote on Tuesday, in a state that regularly tops the national charts on the cost of fire protection.

Since 2007, the R.I. State Association of Firefighters has logged more than $290,413 on political spending, with most of that money going to help state lawmakers win reelection and ward off challengers.

In the 2017-18 election cycle alone, the association represented at the State House by Cranston fire union president Paul Valletta spent $35,364, with most of that money going to Democratic legislators.

And that is just one group.

In the last two-year election cycle, other firefighter-affiliated PACs spent $94,230. Most of that went to state lawmakers, though in some communities — such as Providence and East Greenwich, where firefighter PACs spent $28,250 and $13,925 respectively — some of the money also reached state, local and in the case of U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, federal candidates.

That includes the political-giving arms of the Providence Firefighters Local 799 IAFF, West Warwick Firefighters Local 1104, Cranston FFs for Public Safety, Coventry Professional Firefighters PAC, Pawtucket Firefighters Local 1261, East Providence Firefighters Local 850, EGFFA (East Greenwich Firefighters Association), Johnston Association Firefighters Local 1950, North Smithfield Professional Fire Fighters PAC, North Kingstown Firefighters Local 1651 and Cumberland Rescue.

"I have no words,'' said Brian Daniels, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, when the financial role that firefighters across the state play in the election of Rhode Island's $15,958.58-a-year, part-time lawmakers.

"Rhode Island taxpayers pay out a lot in property taxes for fire protection, and firefighter unions pay out a lot in campaign donations to State House politicians to keep it that way,'' new state GOP Chairwoman Sue Cienki observed.

"Common Cause has long believed that our campaign finance system gives too great a voice to special interests at the State House,'' said the group's executive director, John Marion, drawing attention to a hearing Wednesday on a Common Cause-backed bill to publicly fund legislative races.

The House is slated to vote Tuesday on two bills that would eliminate the firefighter exemption in the state's overtime law and entitle them to time-and-a-half pay for working more than 42 hours per week. Only a handful of Rhode Island communities have not already established 42-hour overtime threshold. These include Tiverton, the hometown of the legislation's sponsor, House Majority Whip John "Jay" Edwards.

In Providence, firefighters are scheduled to work 24 hours on, followed by two days off, then 24 hours on and four days off, according to the city. That is supposed to translate into 42 hours a week, on average, over the course of a year.

The city's total overtime tab for the 2018 calendar year was $9.8 million, out of $45 million in salary costs.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello supports the overtime legislation. He said, "These bills are being unfairly mischaracterized as they simply prevent cities and towns from imposing an unduly harsh 56-hour per week schedule where firefighters are not allowed to return home to their families for three days. This work schedule is not good for public safety, the employees or their families. Currently, 36 of 39 cities and towns already recognize the negative effects of this type of work schedule. These bills are intended to discourage this unfairness in the workplace."

Lawmakers are getting letters from both sides in this fight.

Warwick Mayor Joseph J. Solomon has written lawmakers, begging them not to limit "communities' ability to negotiate with firefighters' unions and control local budgets." Among his arguments:

"The City of Warwick is already facing a very difficult financial situation, with a projected deficit of $7.4 million in this fiscal year and a projected shortfall in FY20 that could be as high as $18 million.

"Additionally, a recent binding arbitration verdict, which ruled in favor of the Warwick Firefighters' Union, will cost the City another $6.5 million in fire-related expenses alone. It is clear that passage of H5662 and H5663 would only cause fire costs to skyrocket further ultimately costing the City of Warwick and communities across the state far more than that which is already included in robust fire budgets."

Valletta, the lobbyist for the State Association of Firefighters, emailed lawmakers to dispel what he called "falsehoods." Among his arguments:

"These two combined bills do only one thing, grant R.I. firefighters the benefit of receiving overtime pay after working any additional hours over 42 hours per week. A benefit most workers have after 40 hours per week. Opponents of these bills have clouded the facts but when you get through all the smoke, pun intended, all these two bills do is treat us like everyone else."

He said the bills would not increase fire protection costs in the state, since "only three fire departments in RI work the 56 hour work week schedule": North Kingstown, Tiverton and Central Coventry Fire District.

He also told the lawmakers that a recent study putting Rhode Island first among all states in per-capita fire-protection costs had been "debunked by the RI Firefighters,'' because it compared Rhode Island cities and towns to others with "different demographics ... and different types of fire service!"

In 2015, during the last big push for firefighter-overtime legislation, a spokeswoman said new Gov. Gina Raimondo had "serious reservations about adding more costs to our cities and towns."

This year? A spokesman for Raimondo said: "Should this legislation reach her desk, she will carefully weigh the concerns of all impacted parties."

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©2019 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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