For years the MBTA’s pension board has operated like a private entity, despite the fact that it receives millions of dollars in taxpayer money to keep its operations afloat. It is not alone in operating in that netherworld where transparency is at best a sometimes thing — the world of quasi-government entities.
There are, in fact, dozens of such agencies — large and small — operating essentially out of public view, their payrolls not subject to the same kind of public disclosure and scrutiny as the payrolls of most state agencies. A recent effort by the Republican leader of the state Senate to force those entities to disclose the most basic kind of information was defeated without even a roll call vote — as such things often do in the Democrat-dominated Legislature.
But this proposal — in a state that could certainly use a dose of sunshine in its public entities — demands a second look as a free-standing piece of legislation expected to be filed this session.
Senate minority leader Bruce Tarr last week used the Senate budget debate to introduce an amendment (one of more than a thousand filed) that would do one simple but essential thing. It would include all quasi-government agencies, including those “managing public pension information,” among those required to provide payroll information to the state comptroller to be included on the public website maintained by that office — known as CTHRU.
During that ever-so-brief debate on the issue, Tarr said the way quasi-government agencies are treated creates “a blind spot in our transparency efforts.”
“So this is a matter of consistency, fairness, and eliminating an area of secrecy,” he added.
A number of the state’s largest quasi-government agencies — the Massachusetts Port Authority and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, for example — do file their payrolls, but, as the comptroller’s office notes on its website, they do so “voluntarily” and the site lists only those agencies “choosing to participate” and includes “updates as provided.”
But still those listed represent fewer than half of those entities that receive public monies or operate in the public realm without being part of the public disclosure system.
Zoo New England, for example, received some $9.6 million in state funds in fiscal 2022 to help operate the two zoos under its governance but does not share its payroll data with the comptroller. Its audit report, however, identifies it as “a Massachusetts nonprofit corporation and a component unit of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”
The entire $15.6 million payroll of the Pension Reserves Investment Management agency, including last year’s more than $1 million salary and bonus payout to its executive director and chief investment officer is online.
But similar information for the MBTA Pension Board, which continues to maintain it isn’t even subject to the state’s open meeting law, is among the missing. Much of what the public now knows about its operations came from the recent release of an arbitrator’s findings that warned the system could become insolvent by 2038 when it’s expected expenses and payouts could total $1.6 billion and consume some 32 percent of the MBTA’s total operating revenue (compared to 14 percent today).
Real public disclosure — of the T pension board operations and that of dozens of other quasi-public agencies as called for in Tarr’s proposal — is long overdue.
In fact, back in 2010, the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group issued a report noting that, “Given their prominent role and potential impact on the public in the state, quasis must be held more accountable with their budget information accessible to decision makers and the public. Democratic institutions are more effective and responsive to public needs when they can be held publicly accountable and their actions are transparent.”
Some, of course, have voluntarily complied since then. Many have not and won’t.
That is, unless the Legislature — itself not a bastion of openness — decides it’s time to open the books and erase the double standard that now exists. Hiding payrolls to which the public contributes shouldn’t be optional.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.