“Never let a good
crisis go to waste ... it’s an opportunity to do things you think
you could not do before.”
— Rahm Emanuel, when President Obama’s chief of staff.
What is now called the
Rahm Rule has been ongoing government policy for a long time: It
explains many bad laws and regulations, and most notably the
Sometimes “opportunity” is
used to create a crisis when there isn’t one, so politicians can
pass legislation to begin destroying a decent private health care
system, and then move on to try wrecking entire economies with
carbon taxes to fight “global warming.”
Rather than just dismiss
the Rahm Rule as a tool of liberal government, maybe citizens should
adopt it themselves, using “good crises” to argue for serious
reform. Take the recent snowstorms that the Massachusetts Bay
Transportation Authority couldn’t handle, creating a crisis in
We have been here before.
In December 1980, a few weeks after the voters passed Proposition
2½, the new law was changed after a one-day T shutdown due to lack
of funds. There was a surge of reporting on the outrageous work
rules of the T’s Carmen’s Union (e.g., crews waiting for the one
union member who could change a lightbulb.) So the Legislature
approved a change in work rules and a major change in the governing
structure of the MBTA, in return for more funding.
This funding required a
change in Prop 2½, which, as passed by voters, limited assessments
by public authorities on the cities and towns to no more than 4
percent over the previous year’s assessment. The new plan assessed
payments based on communities’ proportionate share of the T’s
deficit. The cities and towns were given an advisory board to
oversee their “contributions.”
Later in the ‘80s, I was
at a Statehouse news conference that was selling the Big Dig.
Concerned local officials wanted to know if that project would take
money away from local road and bridge projects; they were assured
that it would not. Seemed an obvious lie, along with the low
estimated cost of the Boston project (roughly $3 billion, which hit
$16 billion before the Dig was dug), but this couldn’t be proven
until it was too late.
Later, it seemed insane to
put Big Dig debt onto the MBTA by including demands for expansion of
public transportation. So the T continued to expand instead of doing
maintenance (because cutting ribbons on new stuff is more fun than
keeping existing stuff fixed).
Most recently, the T was
given a penny of the state sales tax in return for giving up some of
the most egregious pension abuses, but this only worked going
forward — it would (may) take bankruptcy to address some of the
outrageous pension benefits that were negotiated decades ago (e.g.,
a 45-year-old has retired with a lifetime pension of $59,525).
Worse, despite the
guaranteed funding, our governor and elected representatives still
have no control over the operation of the MBTA, which is an
I found a 1985 report
released by Senate Ways & Means Chairman Patricia McGovern,
D-Lawrence, warning about the accelerating number of independent
authorities (506 at that time), including the “massive MBTA … These
authorities represent a fourth branch of government over which the
electorate has little control… (placing) the state in a precarious
situation in which many of its most critical functions are performed
by autonomous, non-elected governmental units.”
The reason some state
government agencies became independent authorities is that
legislators didn’t want aggravation from their constituents when
services weren’t efficiently provided. After a rough beginning, this
strategy worked with the Mass Water Resources Authority and its
competent director Fred Laskey. It’s not working with the T, which
has abused its mission and the taxpayers until finally, with
incompetent director Beverly Scott, it reached the inevitable
collapse this month.
Now the Pioneer Institute
recommends that the T Board be eliminated and a receiver appointed
to fix the fiscal/operational problems the board hasn’t addressed.
Receivership worked for Chelsea and more recently, seems to be
helping Lawrence: it’s worth a try with the T.
The last thing that should
be tried is giving an unreformed, unaccountable MBTA more revenue.
It already gets 49 percent of the gas tax, one penny of the 6.25
percent sales tax, and fares (from now stranded customers). Some
liberal legislators have actually filed a bill to create local
option sales or payroll taxes — even property tax increases — with
revenues dedicated to transportation, however that is defined after
the system takes care of itself with extraordinary pay, benefits and
There are examples of
privatized transportation systems around the country, but I doubt
this will be considered here. The MBTA’s own website notes on that
“During the mid to late 1800’s some 20 different horsecar companies
offered service to Boston and surrounding communities. Lax
supervision led to over-duplication of existing services, fares were
not regulated, and competition for passengers was fierce.” So, the
General Court of Massachusetts, rather than stepping up the
supervision, decided it couldn’t tolerate competition for passengers
or fares not being regulated, so it began the creation of a public
street railway system, and that evolved to today’s crisis.
In 1974, voters passed a
constitutional amendment allowing taxes collected for the state
highway fund to be used for public transportation. The argument was
that a viable public transportation system would take pressure off
the highways and make driving a nicer experience; we voters fell for
it by 58.4%.
I think most taxpayers
consider transportation a legitimate function of government, from
the interstate highway system to trains. But we are paying more than
enough for the Massachusetts version. Any sane taxpayer asked to
“contribute” more to this ongoing boondoggle would say no.
No point in wasting this
crisis: let’s try receivership, and if that doesn’t work, there may
be an “opportunity” to discuss bankruptcy or even privatization.
Barbara Anderson of
Marblehead is president of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a Salem