The Boston Herald
Monday, November 15, 1999
Lawmakers' blunder puts T budget off track
by Cosmo Macero Jr.
A long-sought plan to reform state funding for the budget-busting
MBTA is in shambles because state lawmakers did their math wrong, the Herald has learned.
Sources say instead of funding the T with 20 percent of statewide
sales tax revenues -- that's a penny on every dollar of taxable spending -- the House and
Senate mistakenly wrote their proposal to earmark only a penny from every transaction.
"This is just another example of
the Legislature having no idea what they're voting on," said Barbara Anderson of
Citizens for Limited Taxation. "They should blame it on Y2K."
The MBTA foul-up -- approved last week as part of the state's fiscal
2000 budget -- means the sale of a $2 coffee mug or a $20,000 car would yield the same 1
cent in revenue to pay for T operations. And instead of a required revenue stream of at
least $645 million, sources say the sales tax measure as written would produce no more
than $30 million a year -- plunging the T into certain financial ruin.
"That's a 95 percent reduction" in MBTA funding, said one
state government source who has analyzed the proposal. "It's not in anyone's interest
to let this happen. And it's extremely embarrassing."
Indeed, the "forward funding" T reform plan has occupied
center stage in drawn-out negotiations over the nearly $20.9 billion budget. Almost five
months late in reaching agreement on a spending plan, House and Senate negotiators ground
their talks to a halt several times over plans to put the T on a financial diet.
Hailing the proposal last week as a long-needed end to the MBTA's
"bloated" spending, House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Haley (D-Weymouth)
declared, "We have finally ... reined in the budget buster that is the MBTA."
But observers say no one planned to go as far as lawmakers
inadvertently did -- essentially writing policy in 1999 to give the T less money than it
operated on in 1969.
"There may be some pieces we have to revisit," Haley said
last night. "I'm not quite sure we have a drafting error. Whatever it is, it should
be 20 percent of the sales tax."
One State House source said the mistake is likely the product of
last-minute efforts to cobble the budget language together.
"They were under so much pressure," the source said.
For months after blowing a June 30 deadline to finish the spending
plan, House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran (D-Mattapan) and Senate President Thomas F.
Birmingham (D-Chelsea) confined negotiations to one-on-one meetings on Birmingham's
Gov. Paul Cellucci blasted the two leaders for leaving their
respective negotiators out of the process, while some legislators threatened to revolt.
"We had months and months of wrangling over the budget. Mistakes
shouldn't have been made," said Sen. Brian Lees (R-East Longmeadow), who has called
Democratic budget negotiators "the gang that couldn't shoot straight."
"This was done exclusively by two (legislators). That's what
happens when you don't utilize the process properly," he said.
A much-touted "agreement in principle" was reached Oct. 13.
But even that deal was short on specifics, and the T proposal topped a list of major items
on which the House and Senate could still not agree.
Both sides finally reached common ground last week, after Senate
negotiators became satisfied that the T reforms would not mandate immediate fare hikes.
The good news: The fiscal 2000 budget calls for a $645 million
funding "floor" for the T, meaning the messed-up language wouldn't immediately
threaten the transit authority's operations.
Moreover, instead of vetoing the measure outright, sources say
Cellucci and his top fiscal advisers are scrambling to change the MBTA plan to make it
reflect the original intent.
"We're going to fix this right away," said one Cellucci
Anderson from CLT said she has a
running tally of stunning legislative errors.
One gun control measure briefly
outlawed the use of ceremonial rifles in Memorial Day and other parades. Another proposal
to slash capital gains taxes -- the bane of wealthy investors -- was misunderstood by many
lawmakers to be a tax break for low-income families.
"There are long examples of
these," Anderson said.
Amendments to fix the T proposal could be taken up by lawmakers as
soon as this week.
Errors made by lawmakers in rewriting the way the MBTA is funded
would send the transit system into bankruptcy. Instead of receiving 20 percent of state
sales tax revenues as designed, the system would receive just 1 cent per sale.
$250 television - $2.50 should go to the T. (Now 1 cent.)
$3 bottle of shampoo - 3 cents should go to the T. (Now 1 cent.)
$4,200 sofa and love seat - $42 should go to the T. (Now 1 cent.)
$21,000 Toyota Tacoma - $210 should go to the T. (Now 1 cent.)
The Boston Herald
Monday, November 15, 1999
A slow pen will do for budget vetoes
A Boston Herald editorial
Gov. Paul Cellucci has indicated he'll have his budget vetoes ready
tomorrow, which is, when you get right down to it, entirely too civil of him. If the
governor took the full 10 days allotted to him to make his vetoes, legislators by then
would be back home -- where they could do the taxpayers no more harm.
And that would be a very good thing indeed.
But Cellucci, himself a former legislator, has apparently chosen to
play by the legislative version of the Marquis of Queensbury rules. We hope he doesn't get
sucker-punched in the process.
The governor has said he wants to trim the nearly $20.9 billion
budget back to $20.4 billion -- a good goal. Some of that money clearly ought to come from
the $60 million effort to boost teachers' pensions via an early retirement program, which
would throw good money after truly bad policy. This really isn't the time to encourage a
crisis in teaching to add to the overall gloom in public education following release of
the latest MCAS test results.
One thing the governor would be well advised to veto is the $10
million set aside for the public financing of political campaigns (a down payment on the
estimated $56 million it will cost for the 2002 elections). By changing the parameters of
that voter-passed campaign finance law, the Legislature has eliminated even the pretense
that this is genuine campaign "reform." It no longer is, and taxpayers shouldn't
be asked to foot the bill for this sham.
This budget set all sorts of records -- biggest, latest -- but none
worth bragging about. Cellucci has an opportunity to turn some of the worst of that
around. He ought to make use of it.