Lawmakers raise questions about key aspects of Baker MBTA bill

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BOSTON >> Leading House and Senate Democrats moved quickly on Wednesday to frame doubts around Gov. Charlie Baker's proposal to seize control of the MBTA and install a new control board to oversee that agency's finances and management for the next three years.

While Baker focused on discussing ways his proposal would allow for better management practices at the beleaguered MBTA, the chairs of the Legislature's Transportation Committee questioned the need for a separate board, and transit activists zeroed in on sections of the bill they said would deprive both the MBTA and other parts of the state's transportation system from needed funding.

In addition to restructuring the management at the MBTA, the governor's bill would repeal a section of the 2013 transportation financing law that directed $506 million over the next five years from the general fund to a dedicated fund for transportation.

Advocates for increased funding called this a step backward, but a spokesman for the administration said nothing in the bill would prevent future operating subsidies from the state budget - in addition to the $1 billion in annual sales taxes received by the MBTA — if the control board cannot balance the MBTA's budget through reforms and "own-source" revenues.

"The legislation makes no changes to the $1 billion that the MBTA is guaranteed in public funding annually, but it does seek to correct the unsustainable path that the system is currently on by maximizing own source revenue and reining in out of control costs so taxpayers are protected and riders get the level of service they deserve," spokesman Tim Buckley said.

Baker, the Republican governor riding sky-high new approval ratings, filed legislation on Wednesday to install a new fiscal and management control board at the T consisting of five members, including three appointed by the governor and one each recommended by House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg.

The control board would oversee the MBTA through June 30, 2018, and the existing MassDOT board would be expanded from seven to 11 members chaired by the secretary of transportation.

Though the control board positions would be volunteer, the administration would have the discretion to offer stipends to board members under the bill. The governor would also hire a "chief administrator" to serve as the general manager of the T.

"Left alone, the MBTA would continue on an unsustainable path and our region's economy cannot afford this and our taxpayers shouldn't have to," Baker said during a press conference.

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Sen. Thomas McGee, the co-chair of the Transportation Committee and the chairman of the state Democratic Party, continued Wednesday to question the underpinnings of the task force report that served as the basis for Baker's legislation.

"We're going to have a hearing on Monday and get a chance to hopefully get more information to buttress a lot of the recommendations that the report made. I have a lot of questions," he said.

McGee added, "I would suggest that they already have a lot of pieces in place to make almost 80 percent of what the report suggested. They can do it right now."

Noting that Baker had successfully requested the resignations of all six members of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board, McGee said Baker could stack the board with new faces handpicked by his team without legislation.

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"I'm not convinced that two boards are the way to go, and we need to focus more clearly on how we integrate the system together," McGee said.

Rep. William Straus, D-Mattapoisett, House co-chair of the Transportation Committee, also questioned the need for a separate control board, suggesting it might make more sense to simply give the governor direct control of the MBTA.

"The missing thing for me is why are we recreating a new board for what is largely already within the governor's direct line of authority?" he said.

Baker, who has already heard similar questions raised by lawmakers as he prepared the legislation, said he welcomed the dialogue with the Legislature.

"We never expected that our recommendations or the panel's recommendations or that this legislation would be met with unicorns and rainbows. This is a difficult set of decisions we need to make," the governor said.

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Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack seemed to anticipate the line of criticism, laying out the case during a press conference for a separate control board.

Pollack said the panel would be able to devote all of its attention to problems at the T without having to worry about other areas of the transportation system, would meet more frequently, and would have more authority over contracting and procurement. The bill calls for the "Pacheco Law," which restricts government's ability to privately contract for services, to be lifted for the MBTA.

"At least for the next few years we need a board that focuses exclusively on the MBTA. This will not undermine five years of efforts to create a unified transportation system and one MassDOT but the truth is for now the T needs the extra attention," Pollack said.

While Baker and Pollack focused on the need for reforms before worrying about revenue, transit activists said the governor's bill would take a step backward from providing the funding necessary to maintain the system.

One section of Baker's bill would eliminate scheduled transfers through 2020 from the general fund to the Commonwealth Transportation Fund. The future funding commitment, including $96 million in fiscal 2016, was a major component of the 2013 financing law.

Under the governor's bill, the new control board would also be directed to build operating budgets for the MBTA that only assume state subsidies to cover debt and the costs associated with moving employees off the capital budget.

"That doesn't' just affect the T. It affects the transportation system in general," said Rafael Mares, staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation. "We're looking at 2012 all over again."

Straus said those changes, along with the governor's recommendation to remove the cap on future fare increases, "may not sit well" with lawmakers and the public.

"I think we're going to hear a lot of discussion over whether that's putting the riding public at risk of shouldering a new gap in funding, and it's a gap that's being proposed by the governor in this bill," Straus said.


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