Mary Riley used to work for the Providence Gas Company. And the pay was pretty good, she says.

But the job stability and benefits of public sector employment were attractive. So 27 years ago, Riley — now a fiscal clerk at Rhode Island College — made the switch.

And she's made her required contribution to the pension system — 8.75 percent of her salary, nowadays — every pay period since.

"Never skipped a beat," she says.

Now, she worries, because of some poor planning by a bunch of politicians, it could all go to hell. Doesn't seem fair to her.

Yes, she understands the world has changed. And yes, she gets that she has to do her part. But her retirement package is already diminished after a couple of rounds of pension reform over the last five years.

And besides, she says, it isn't like she was going to get rich off the thing.

"My pension will not be $80,000, $90,000. I'll be lucky," she says, "if I get $20,000."

Who works here?

One of the most popular ideas for public pension reform is moving away from a defined-benefit system — the retiree gets X dollars per month, regardless of how the stock market performs — to a hybrid system that includes some 401(k)-style elements.

The chief reason for the shift, of course, would be saving the state some loot. But analysts at the business-backed Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council suggest another reason to weigh the change.

The current system encourages employees to stick around for decades; it takes 10 years to vest and the system is backloaded — the longer you work, the richer your pension.

There are advantages to keeping a bunch of gray hairs around: you want people who know where the bodies are buried. Particularly if they work at the coroner's office.

But if you're looking to attract younger worker bees — the sort that might appreciate greater career flexibility — a 401(k)-style plan could make for better honey.

C'mon, it's not that bad!

Here's the funny thing about the pension crisis.

Everything you've just read is true: Rhode Island's state-level pension system is among the sickest in the country and reform could free up millions to fix our education system, clean the beaches, and cut down wait times at the DMV (hey, a guy can dream, can't he?).

But there's still a pretty good argument to be made that the sky — if pocked with some big, dark clouds — isn't falling.

Tom Sgouros, a liberal public policy analyst who briefly ran for treasurer last year, says part of the problem is our penchant for bad analogies; pols like to say the public pension system is like a mortgage or a private-sector retirement plan. But it's not.

General Motors has to keep its pension system fully funded because it could go belly up at any time — and the workers need to get paid. But the state, like it or not, ain't going nowhere (unless, perhaps, it starts hocking Chevys).

More importantly, the State House has the power to tax. So its pension obligations will get paid off at some point.

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