It’s time to open up the books of the MBTA pension system.
The MBTA derives two-thirds of its $1.9 billion budget from state and local taxes. It contributes $71 million per year to pay pensions for its workers. Historically, MBTA pensions have been very generous, although the legislature reformed the system in 2009 as to new employees.
Few would argue with the basic principle that citizens have a right to know how their government is spending their tax money. As a result of legislation we passed in 2010, any citizen can look online and see how state funds are being spent, including funds spent on salaries and pensions for public employees. Visit mass.gov/opencheckbook.
By contrast, the MBTA pension system has remained in the dark, inaccessible to public oversight. Visit www.mbtarf.com to learn exactly how little you know about the system.
One point of interest is who receives MBTA pensions and for how much. Some better-paid young MBTA retirees are double dipping. But it is equally of interest to know who manages MBTA pension funds and how they are paid and at what other vendors are receiving fees for providing services to the entity. Legislators have no better access to the answers to these questions than do the members of the general public.
The MBTA pension system considers itself a private trust and the Supreme Judicial Court agreed in litigation in the 1990s that the entity was not subject to the public records law and not subject to the oversight of the public Ethics Commission.
However, the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision was based on the technical definitions of “public” chosen by the legislature. The Supreme Judicial Court has not held that the legislature is without power to open the books of the entity.
I offered an amendment (#69) to the transportation finance bill to add the MBTA pension system to the listing of agencies subject to public records law disclosure. The Senate adopted the amendment unanimously on a roll call vote. In its general budget debate, the House adopted a similar amendment #835.1, worded more broadly but with the same effect. This amendment was also adopted by a unanimous roll call vote.
So, both branches have now unanimously voted that the MBTA retirement system should be subject to the public records law. However, the provisions are riding in separate bills and are worded differently.
The state’s transportation finance legislation is still pending in a conference committee, appointed to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. In a couple of weeks, after the Senate reveals and debates its budget, then the budget too will go to conference with the House. Once both the budget and the transportation finance bill are in conference, the table will be set for negotiation and horse-trading between House and Senate leadership on all points of difference in the two pending bills.
The most important issue at stake is the amount of revenue pledged towards the Governor’s proposal to spend $1 billion per year to support a 10-year program to rehabilitate our road and transit infrastructure. I’m hoping we end up closer to the Senate’s plan which comes closer to the Governor’s.
But I’m also hoping that we come out of the twin conference processes with a public records amendment that ends the secrecy of the MBTA pension system. As we commit substantial additional revenue towards transportation, we should do all we can to eliminate questions about how it is being spent.