The Hill and the Hall Week in Review

1202490364Each Friday, Paul McMorrow will take you inside the smoke-filled rooms and darkly-lit corridors of government to bring you the hottest and juiciest political tidbits. This week: the fire fighters vent, the T is broke, and the legislature is jammed.

It was, by all accounts, a bizarre scene at City Hall on Wednesday when the Boston firefighters union met with members of the City Council.

“What they really should’ve done is convene the Council psychologist,” says a source. “They seem crazed, like they’re living in denial. I get it – they’re feeling pressure, the leaks are pissing them off, they feel like they’re being dragged through the mud. But nothing good can be coming from them fighting drug testing. Fifty minutes of that one hour meeting was just them venting. There were no talking points. It was just stream of consciousness emotion.”

As far as we’ve been able to ascertain, the union’s vaunted PR firm was not in attendance.

The MBTA is broke. So says the T’s general manager, Dan Grabauskas. The agency is facing a $75 million deficit next year, even in the face of massive fare hikes and a wicked successful crackdown on fare evasion. It’s struggling with a massive debt load, and Grabauskas’s broke-as-a-joke statements were clearly designed to goad the state into bailing out the struggling bureaucracy. (We’ve seen this strategy before, of course.)

Grabauskas isn’t lying when he says the T is drowning in debt (accounting for an unheard-of 27 cents of every dollar it blows). But when Beacon Hill observers read Grabauskas’s woe-is-us comments in the Globe, they didn’t see the key words mentioned a single time—by the GM, the CFO, or anybody else: Operating costs.

“Before you say, ‘We need more revenue,’ you have to look at costs,” says House Minority Leader Brad Jones.

And they are frightening. Consider this passage from last year’s scathing Transportation Finance Commission Report:

The MBTA has long been known as having among the nation’s highest operating costs, and cost control was a key element of Forward Funding. The MBTA has not come close to meeting the objectives … that growth in operating costs would be only 2.5 percent per year for the period between FY 2000 and FY 2007. In actuality, the rate of growth over that period has been 5.0 percent per year. By FY 2007, the difference between planned and actual operating expenses was $143 million per year.

In other words, if the T had controlled its costs like it was supposed to this decade, its $75 million deficit would be a healthy surplus. Instead, it has continued to offer one of the nation’s most generous benefits packages – early retirement with a full pension and free health care.

“Health care costs need to be addressed aggressively,” says Mike Widmer, president of the Mass Taxpayers Foundation and a member of the TFC. According to the commission’s report, health care eats up 44 percent of all fare revenue; by 2026, that figure is forecast to be 94 percent, assuming fares grow with inflation.

As the T’s management ratchets up its campaign to alter, or even end, Forward Funding, the discussion could digress into a nasty fight over the benefits. Management certainly isn’t blind to the costs of their benefits, and their silence suggests either intransigence, or cowardice. They may be hoping that the legislature will do their union-busting dirty work for them.

There are those in the legislature who want nothing more than to put the T on a severe austerity diet (Republican leadership has bills pending that would fold the agency into the state’s insurance and pension systems, moves that could cover the bulk of next year’s deficit). But they’re awaiting Gov. Deval Patrick’s much-talked about MassTrans proposal. And even if MassTrans does get filed soon, it likely wouldn’t see action until late 2008, at the earliest.

And in the meantime, the wheels continue to fall off the bus.

Meanwhile, as the legislature waits on the governor’s transportation reform package, discontent seems to be bubbling up from the right side of the aisle. Jones, the House Minority Leader, is frustrated that his T reform bills haven’t gone anywhere – and that nothing else has, either.

“I recognize that [Patrick] has to come in, put his oar in the water and row, but we filed these bills to get the ball started, and it would’ve been a good first step. The legislature’s reluctant to act. We haven’t been doing much. We meet one day a week. It’s frustrating. You’ve got school vacation coming up, and after that, it’s March and it’s the budget, and the next thing you know, we’re in July. This is shaping up to be a pretty sparse year.

“And for all the promises of one-party government, the record doesn’t match that rhetoric. When there’s two parties, both sides have to justify their successes; they need to get things done. We’re going to get to the point in the calendar where we have to say, what can we get done?”

Asked whether the governor’s bio-tech initiative will emerge next week, as scheduled, Jones responded, “We’re not very good at hitting deadlines.”

What are they good at? Running for office, for one. Which is convenient, because with two Senate seats opening up in a single night last week, the special election train hasn’t slowed down one bit. An early, obvious choice to succeed outgoing Senator Pam Resor is Jamie Eldridge – provided he can put some cash into that meager-looking bank account of his.

And finally, now that Mitt Romney’s campaign for president has ended. Who’ll we make fun of now?