Testifying in front of a packed State House hearing, Governor Charlie Baker on Monday faced tough questions from lawmakers about his plans to overhaul the MBTA.
After the MBTA faltered amid a historic winter, Baker proposed legislation that would create a new “fiscal and management control board” to control the T. The bill would also temporarily suspend a law that puts up hurdles for public agencies that want to contract out its services.
At a public hearing on the bill, Representative William Straus, the co-chairman of the legislature’s joint transportation committee, repeatedly pushed back against the idea of a control board. The Mattapoisett Democrat questioned adding another bureacracy to manage the T.
He pointed out that the governor had just appointed a new MassDOT board. Through that board, the administration now has the chance to pick a new general manager and take total control of the T, he said.
“Why should we put anything in between them?” Straus asked.
Senator Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, also came out against the control board when he testified in front of the committee.
“Why have another bureaucracy put in place between the governor and getting things done every single day?” Pacheco asked. “Eliminating bureaucracy around the day-to-day management is something that could expedite and improve the management and absolutely put in place accountability.”
Pacheco also defended the law that puts up hurdles for contracting out services, which he helped to pass. State auditor Suzanne Bump also opposed suspension of the law, saying T management cannot be trusted to successfully contract out services without proper oversight.
But Baker and administration officials insisted that the board and the suspension of the Pacheco law would be essential tools to turning around the agency. Several business leaders also testified in support of his bill, saying it’s the only way to truly transform the T.
Jim Klocke, of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, testified that the creation of a fiscal control board was the first step to making “real changes” at the T.
“A three-year control board that is empowered to perform a more in-depth analysis of the special MBTA panel’s findings, identify the most impactful reforms, and most importantly, implement those reforms, will be able to transform the T,” said Klocke, the chamber’s executive vice president.
Pollack on Monday said the control board would provide more focus, urgency, discipline, authority than the MassDOT board, which currently oversees the T. The new control board would also set performance targets, Pollack said.
Baker said the recommendation was based on the control board that helped turn around Springfield’s finances. Chris Gabrieli, who served on Springfield’s control board, told the committee he saw the board transform a city that struggled with financial management for years.
“A control board can be an unqualified success,” said Gabrieli, who was appointed by Baker to the state board of higher education.
In anticipation of the Monday hearing, union leaders called upon labor supporters to rally outside the State House and oppose aspects of Baker’s bill.
Union leaders called on workers to flood the capitol to let legislators know about their opposition to the bill. Steven A. Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, told the rally the governor was attacking necessary protections for public workers. He painted the governor’s bill as an ideological battle being waged against union workers.
“They want to try and make this about the MBTA, but it’s about organized labor, in general,” he said.
But at the hearing, Baker said that was far from the truth.
“I do not want to privatize the T. I don’t want to slash services. I don’t want to lay off hundreds of MBTA workers,” he said.
Baker and Pollack framed his bill as the only way to truly transform the T.
“If nothing changes, nothing will change,” he said. “Now is the time to make the necessary changes.”