The Little State That Could

Straight-shooting Gina Raimondo overhauled Rhode Island's pension system in less than a year. Washington should sit up and take notes

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Christopher Morris for TIME

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The scope of Raimondo's win might be measured in the vote tallies: 57-15 in the house and an even more pronounced 35-2 in the senate. But a sharper gauge might be the ringing speech delivered by the senate majority leader, who called on his caucus to support this "fair and responsible" bill. "Failure to act," he declared, "is not an option." Those words, coming from union pal Ruggerio, hinted at epochal change.

Rhode Island's painful miracle does not leave a flawless map for other troubled states. Raimondo had certain advantages. The state's pension is set out in a statute, which makes it more plausible for reformers to argue in court that it is not a binding contract. Fixing the busted municipal pension systems dotting the Rhode Island landscape will be a tougher task because they are the products of collective bargaining. And the lawmakers in Providence had more room to operate than their colleagues in capitals where pension benefits have been written into state constitutions.

Nevertheless, Rhode Island proves that the mistakes and misfeasance of the past need not throttle the nation's destiny. There is still a space between left and right for a dose of reality; we don't have to be Greece. And if Raimondo is any indication, doing the hard math doesn't have to be a career killer. She's one year into her political life, and people are already talking about her as a future governor--an idea she makes no effort to snuff. "Am I running? I don't know," she says. "We need leadership." And later, basking in success, she adds, "I think this is a beginning, not an end. We've got high unemployment. Big budget problems. The municipal pension systems. Let's just keep going."

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