Editorial: 'T' escapes 'reform' bill

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

In addressing the state's transportation finance crisis, the state Senate demanded reform before revenue. But there's been no reform in the way the Legislature does business, and last week was typical. The transportation reform bill wasn't available for public view until just before the debate. Most of the debate was held behind closed doors, at party caucuses, with few of the bill's provisions discussed in public session. The bill was approved with just a single dissenting vote - and it was days later before some of its shortcomings became evident.

The lack of reform in the reform bill is particularly evident in provisions relating to the MBTA, traditionally a favored son of the Boston political class. The MBTA's extraordinarily generous health and retirement benefits are the largest factor in the transportation system's long-term budget imbalance. In a report released Monday, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimated that handful of reforms in the way the MBTA handles employee and retiree health care could save the state $1 billion over the next 20 years.

One proposed reform, moving MBTA employees on to the Group Insurance Commission when contracts expire, could save at least $25 million a year, Taxpayers Foundation President Michael Widmer said. While that reform was included in the bill reported out by the Senate Transportation Committee, it disappeared by the time the final bill made it to the Senate floor, replaced by a process by which MBTA employees could be moved to the GIC if health costs exceeded the GIC costs by an as-yet-undetermined amount.

Such watering-down of reform is typical of Beacon Hill, where lobbyists and public employee unions work behind the scenes while politicians strike poses onstage. Widmer didn't get a look at the final bill until Thursday morning, and it's a safe bet most senators couldn't analyze all 278 pages of dense legalese before they were asked to vote on it Thursday afternoon. Certainly there was no time for citizens to hear about the giveaways to the MBTA Carmen's Union and communicate their feelings to the senators before the token public debate allowed by leadership.

As passed, the Senate bill ""would produce no short term savings and uncertain savings over the long term, falling dramatically short of the recommendations" of the blue-ribbon Transportation Finance Commission, Widmer said.

Transportation reform now moves to the House where, if experience is any guide, the process will be even less transparent and the outcome even more determined by House leadership.

But here's an opportunity for new Speaker Robert DeLeo to distinguish himself from his predecessors. We call on him to commit to an open debate, with ample opportunity for amendments, and we challenge him to make the final transportation reform bill, and the proposed amendments, public at least 48 hours before the representatives vote.

The Legislature cannot be a credible agent of reform for the state bureaucracy until it reforms itself.

The MetroWest Daily News