If Governor Charlie Baker’s plan to fix the MBTA is making the Legislature feel uncomfortable, it should.
Baker, through legislation filed this week, is proposing some strong medicine to cure our ailing transit system: a fiscal control board, new flexibility to privatize services, and a cutback in state funds to force the agency to be more self-sufficient.
The measures run counter to what we’ve done before, and we’re already hearing squawking from Representative Bill Straus and Senator Tom McGee, co-chairmen of the Joint Transportation Committee.
The message: We’re going to put up a fight.
To which I say: Give Charlie a chance.
So here’s the thing about Baker. When it comes to solving crises, this ain’t his first rodeo. In fact, the biggest talking point of his campaign was how he’s the guy who saved Harvard Pilgrim and how he could bring executive-style leadership to Beacon Hill.
Baker’s handling of the T “is reminiscent of the way he approached the Harvard Pilgrim turnaround,” said Bruce Bullen, who served as the health insurer’s chief operating officer back then.
Harvard Pilgrim was in deep trouble when Baker became its chief executive in 1999. It had grown dramatically after going through a merger. The problem was that the company outgrew its ability to keep track of everything from enrollment to claims. The insurer’s finances were shaky, but even more its books were messy — kind of like the T.
When Baker arrived, he ordered up a rapid diagnosis, developed a plan in 90 days, and put in place high-performance teams to implement it. He focused on accountability and fiscal management. And he was not afraid to make unpopular decisions, such as exiting the Rhode Island market, laying off workers, and outsourcing jobs.
“He likes big challenges,” said Bullen, now chief operating officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. “He likes to go at what are the root causes of the problem.”
For the T, Baker zeroed in on governance. He would temporarily strip the state transportation board of its oversight of the MBTA, and in its place install a five-member fiscal control board that would run the T for three to five years.
The idea is modeled after Springfield, where a temporary board was created a decade ago to manage the city out of its financial mess. The board made painful decisions and wielded unusual power over unions, but today Springfield is fiscally sound, to the point where it has close to $40 million in a rainy day fund.
The proposal for yet another board is turning out to be one of the more controversial parts of Baker’s legislation. Is it even necessary, given that the Deval Patrick appointees on the current transportation board have all resigned and Baker could use those vacancies to gain control over the T?
The governor isn’t dilly-dallying; he’s planning to make his appointments by next month’s board meeting.
Straus, a Democrat from Mattapoisett, sees the special board as undoing the state’s recent effort to centralize transportation decisions. He also thinks the governor could use the new body to distance himself from the dirty work that might be needed to fix the T.
“Sometimes the board isn’t the arm of the governor, it is the shield for implementing policies the governor might not want to put his own stamp on,” Straus said.
These are fair points, but the control board wouldn’t last forever. And it seems reasonable the governor would want a specialized team attacking problems that have been hard to untangle for decades, while the transportation board can continue to deal with its other responsibilities, such as roads and bridges.
Legislators should feel wary because Baker is proposing some radical changes. Tom Reilly felt the same way when he was attorney general and the state had to put Harvard Pilgrim in receivership. Reilly worked closely with Baker to keep the insurer afloat.
Was Reilly nervous about a novice CEO’s turnaround plan?
“Damn right, I was nervous. A million people with their health insurance were at risk,” recalled Reilly, now a lawyer at Manion Gaynor & Manning.
But Reilly believed in Baker and his plan. So how about now with the T?
“If given the time and authority that he needs to get the job done, he’ll get it done,” said Reilly. “I’ve seen him do it.”
Yes, he has. If Charlie Baker wants to own the T, let him have at it.