Joan Vennochi

The cost of arrogance at the T

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / April 12, 2009
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GO AHEAD. Shut down the trains and buses.

Massachusetts taxpayers hear the promise of pain. All they see is the cost of arrogance.

The MBTA announces it must end night and weekend commuter service, eliminate Green Line stops, and lay off 805 employees if it doesn't get new revenue. But the threats come from an agency that rehired four MBTA officials as high-paid consultants, after they retired under the T's unusually generous pension plan.

Because of headlines like that, no one sees the faces of city residents who will lose bus lines the T considers underused, many of them located in poorer neighborhoods. Instead, they see the smug, greedy faces of the politically well-connected.

In a speech last week to the Boston Chamber of Commerce, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo promised more pain to come from state budget cuts that he said would strike at "the very core of government's purpose and mission."

When taxpayers hear those words, they won't see the faces of the disabled and their families who stand to lose critical support services because of those budget cuts.

Instead, they will see Dino DiFronzo, one of the T retirees who was hired back as a T consultant to work closely with lawmakers like DeLeo.

When taxpayers learn about cuts to mental health programs, they won't see the thousands of children imperiled by those harsh budget calculations.

Instead, they will see Jack Brennan, the former lawmaker who found a way to fatten his pension by serving as a volunteer on the Malden Public Library board of trustees.

When he gave up the controversial benefits, Brennan said he wanted to end negative publicity about his pension. Giving them up now doesn't end the cynicism stoked by Brennan's willingness to game the system in the first place, and the willingness of state lawmakers to help him do it.

Governor Deval Patrick can roll out charts that show more than 50 runaway state authorities packed with costly patronage appointments from administrations past. Taxpayers won't see a governor aiming for reform. They will see a governor who tried to plant his own patronage pick in one of those agencies before telling the real story of an out-of-control system.

The symbols of greed, excess, and patronage not only drain taxpayers of their hard-earned money. They take away their commitment to shared responsibility and blind them to the basic services government provides us all. The clean water we drink, the roads we ride on, the schools our children learn in - that's all taxpayer-funded government at work.

It's bad enough when taxpayers conclude they are paying too much for mediocre service. It's worse if they conclude their money is being diverted from those basic services to pay outrageous pensions to ex-lawmakers and further enrich retired T employees.

The disclosure about the four MBTA officials who retired under the agency's generous pension plan and were then rehired under contracts to do their old jobs is one more reason for the public to reject any kind of tax increase. It is one more reason to interpret headlines about drastic cuts in bus and rail service as meaningless scare tactics. The threats feel obvious and manipulative. Give us our gas tax hike or suffer the consequences.

Massachusetts faces a genuine fiscal crisis. The transportation system is running on empty.

But no one today has the credibility to make the case for higher taxes. The governor squandered the high ground with his ill-fated employment plan for state Senator Marian Walsh, and legislative leaders have their own credibility problems.

The initial reaction to the report about the four MBTA officials is more proof that no one in state government gets it. At the urging of Secretary of Transportation James A. Aloisi Jr., the T said it would let the contracts expire without renewal. What a timid response from Patrick's alleged agent of reform.

Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation - which supports a gas tax hike and pension reform - got it right with his reply to the T retirees-turned-consultants: "Is there no end to the indignity?"

Not in Massachusetts.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at

Note to readers: The Boston Herald was wrong when it reported that I am a Boston Globe employee with a lifetime job guarantee.

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