Budgets and transit: parsing affairs of state

On March 4 and April 8, the Baker administration published financial waypaths, setting out in slightly different directions. The March release was a traditional H.R. 1 bill in the General Court: the governor’s proposed budget. As usual, snoring news writers and soundbite junkies managed to miss much of what might matter.

The April release began another mission to “save the trains”–variously known since early twentieth century as the Boston Elevated, the MTA and (after 1964) the MBTA. All swooned toward bankruptcy, yet all revived at a scent of public money. The title of the release, “Back on Track,” sounded like an echo from Patrick administration years: “Staying on Track” and “Keeping on Track.”

Transit stew: It should be unlikely for Baker years to achieve what a century of would-be reforms failed to get: a transit system becoming both reliable and affordable. Gov. Baker’s review panel was stuffed with shirts similar to ones staking out a dusty trail of failed reforms: politicians, bureaucrats and academics.

Substituting “Boston Elevated” for “MBTA,” much of the Baker panel’s report could have been written shortly after the super-inflation from World War I. Then, too, the region’s largest transit system could accurately be described in the same ways:
• Is in severe financial distress
• Lacks a viable maintenance and repair plan
• Lacks a culture of performance management
• Is governed ineffectively

Surprise…surprise. So how to fix the problems? Who will do the work? Apparent answers: “the Legislature” (most likely meaning the General Court, since we don’t have anything officially known as a Massachusetts “Legislature”). Ha ha ha ha–now, give us a break. Naming one of the major conspirators, the Baker panel proposes to put a fox in charge of a chicken barn.

A rare candid image of a transit system in distress came from Dan Ruppert, in a book called The Gravy Train. Mr. Ruppert is a mechanical engineer who worked nine years at a major maintenance shop of the Long Island Rail Road. That is one of the few agencies in the country whose record of cronyism and corruption might sink below elevations in eastern Massachusetts. The subtitle of his book tells much of his story: “Low productivity, over-compensation, nepotism, overstaffing, outdated work rules, ineffective management.”

The Baker motif appears to read, “We won’t pay.” An obvious response from MBTA regulars, “We won’t work.” How to keep the trains and buses going while squeezing out featherbedding, sleazebags and graft always proved the conundrum. Nothing looks different now, and the game has always operated “advantage inside.” So far as we know, Gov. Baker does not take the T and will always be somewhere else.

The recent review tried shock tactics: operating costs paid from bond funds! Surprise…surprise. That was a tactic deployed by the Republicans of the Weld and Cellucci administrations–to hide Big Dig spending from news hounds and the public. During the Patrick administration, Democrats claimed to have stopped it with a 2011 “transportation reform.” Well, “This isn’t Kansas any more.”

A sucker born every minute: Gov. Baker bids to apply “slash and burn” tactics he developed at Harvard Pilgrim to the Massachusetts state budget. His H.R. 1 bill would slash–that is, would zero out–100 of 785 master budget accounts for current fiscal year programs. It would add 18 new programs and burn taxpayers. The sum of the parts–lost on the spreadsheet-challenged news writers–is much bigger than advertised.

News media nearly all swallowed and parroted the official Baker line: a “sustainable 3% increase.” Do the math. The proposed total for next year: $38,863,754,342–plus unknown increases from employee benefits and collective bargaining. Reported spending for the current fiscal year: $37,403,286,027–estimated as of some time this February.

The minimum proposed tab for state government in fiscal 2016, from Gov. Baker’s financial tables: a 3.9 percent increase. The current rate of general inflation, from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: zero change. For February, 2015, during Gov. Baker’s budget artwork, BLS reported the Consumer Price Index as follows: “The all-items index was unchanged over the past 12 months.”

Into the weeds: Among the Baker slashees: account 7030-1002, Kindergarten Expansion Grants, $18,589,714 for the current fiscal year. Brookline’s share: about $250,000–expected to be gone as of next July. Another casualty: account 1595-6123, Community Preservation Act and Life Sciences, $22,779,000 for the current fiscal year. Stated reason: “Eliminated state subsidy.” Good luck to yokels who bought into labeling money through the Community Preservation Act. Brookline voters rejected it.

Gov. Baker’s beneficiaries in this round would include the following new items, not funded in the current year, found near the peak of the money pile:
• Other Post Employment Benefits Funding, $84,552,681
• Early Retirement Incentive Program Salary Reserve, $63,340,000
• Early Retirement Incentive Program Pension Contribution, $48,749,000
The total of $196,641,681 is “paying them forward.” It represents just a tiny portion of the enormous overhang in retirement costs for state employees that “Generous Curt”–the Great and General Court–has been ladling out for decades but has rarely set aside money to cover.

The Big Benny, though, is account 4000-0500, MassHealth Managed Care, $5,162,825,921 estimated for the current fiscal year and $5,931,539,597 proposed for the one starting in July. That is a 15 percent increase for the “Obama Care” type of program begun under Republican former Gov. Romney–in the name of cost control. It gets worse: account 1595-6369, Commonwealth Transportation Fund transfer to the MBTA, $122,552,622 estimated for the current fiscal year and $187,000,000 proposed for the one starting in July–a 53 percent boost. Who says, “We won’t pay”?

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, April 9, 2015


Gov. Charles Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, Baker-Polito administration files fiscal year 2016 budget proposal (press release), March 4, 2015

Office of Gov. Charles Baker, Fiscal year 2016 budget proposal (H.R. 1), March 4, 2015

Office of Gov. Charles Baker, Line item summary, H.R. 1 for fiscal 2016, March 4, 2015

Office of Gov. Charles Baker, Back on Track: an action plan to transform the MBTA, April 8, 2015 (1 MB)

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer price index, February, 2015

School Committee: budget bounties and woes, Brookline Beacon, March 13, 2015

Office of Gov. Deval Patrick and Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, Transportation reform, 2012

Rafel Mares, Keeping on Track, 2014 (1 MB)

Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy, Staying on Track, 2012 (3 MB)

Dan Ruppert, The Gravy Train, Trafford Publishing, 2002. Cronyism and corruption at the Long Island Rail Road in New York.


References from “Back on Track” (April, 2015)
• Taking the T to the Next Level of Progress, MBTA Blue Ribbon Committee on Forward Funding, 2000
• MBTA Capital Spending: Derailed by Expansion?, Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation/Pioneer Institute, 2002
• Transportation Finance in Massachusetts: An Unsustainable System, Massachusetts • Transportation Finance Commission, 2007
• T Approaching: Dire Financial Straits, Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, 2008
• Born Broke, MBTA Advisory Board, 2009
• MBTA Review, David D’Alessandro, 2009
• Blue-Ribbon Summit on Financing the MBTA and RTAs, Northeastern University Dukakis Center/Conservation Law Foundation, 2010
• Maxed Out, Transportation for Massachusetts, 2011
• Transportation Governance and Finance, National Conference of State Legislatures, 2011
• Fare Hikes, Service Cuts and MBTA Mismanagement, Pioneer Institute, 2012
• Hub and Spoke Report, Urban Land Institute/Northeastern University Dukakis Center, 2012
• Staying on Track, Northeastern University Dukakis Center, 2012
• The MBTA’s Out-of-Control Bus Maintenance Costs, Pioneer Institute, 2013
• Keeping on Track, Progress Reports, Transportation for Massachusetts, 2014-2015
• The End of its Line, Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, 2015

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