Chang-Diaz: Senate following though on 'Reform Before Revenue"

Much has been made in the daily news media about the need for Beacon Hill to clean house before asking Massachusetts residents to contribute more in taxes to help solve our state’s budget crisis. To be sure, this is exactly the right order of things. The Legislature and the Governor should do everything we can to identify efficiencies, say no to unfair benefits, and rebuild trust with the voters and taxpayers before passing revenue measures. That’s our job as stewards of the public’s dollars. I want to set the record straight as to whether I’ve seen the Senate fulfill that charge during my first five months in office.

At my swearing-in on January 7th, the Senate articulated the commitment of “Reform Before Revenue.” Since then the Senate has backed up the “Reform Before Revenue” mantra with the following: passage of a massive transportation reform bill in March, a rigorous pension reform bill in early April, and a groundbreaking ethics reform bill in May. These three pieces of legislation were passed through the Senate and the House before it took up any revenue debates or votes.

The Senate’s transportation overhaul bill takes multiple transportation agencies—MassHighway, the Turnpike Authority, the MBTA, many regional transit authorities—and combines them into a single, streamlined transportation authority called the Massachusetts Surface Transportation Authority (MassTrans), which would oversee all surface transportation functions and allow for the elimination of duplication and inefficiencies across agencies, providing greater accountability and oversight. The legislation also eliminates the MBTA’s costly and controversial “23 and out” retirement perk and reforms MBTA health insurance benefits to abolish favorable treatment for MBTA employees over other state employees.

Second, the Senate pension reform bill takes a strong tack against abuses, closing seven loopholes in our pension laws that have lead to egregious misuses of public funds. The “one day, one year” provision that allows elected officials to claim an entire year of credible service for working one day in a calendar year? Out, under the Senate bill. Municipal officials receiving pension credit for unpaid positions? Out, under the Senate bill. Elected officials claiming a “termination allowance” based on the failure to be nominated or re-elected? Out, under the Senate bill. Artificially inflated pensions for individuals who combine years of service at two different public positions? Out, under the Senate bill. And the list goes on. It’s also worth noting that the Senate’s pension reform bill is applicable for current public employees, as well as future ones. Finally, by way of context, it is valuable for readers to know that the average state employee pension is a modest $24,000 annually and 75% to 100% of that is paid for by their own personal contributions throughout their career. A few bad apples shouldn’t spoil the entire bunch.

The Senate’s third pillar in rebuilding public trust this spring has been the passage of an ethics reform bill. While pundits’ reception of the Senate bill has been cool, I believe firmly these reviews are shortsighted. We all know money has an undue influence in our political system. Yet as critics have focused on the call for ever more prohibitions and penalties for acts that are already prohibited under current law, we’ve risked missing the much larger problem in our ethics system: campaign finance. The Senate bill tackles this issue with surprising boldness. It calls for an outright ban on political contributions from lobbyists. It also changes the annual cap on contributions to political parties from $5,000 to $500. And, importantly, the bill requires disclosure of who’s paying for third-party expenditures on electioneering communications—think “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” ads—so the public can see who is helping whom in our political system. Finally, the Senate bill also requires more rigorous disclosure of executive and legislative lobbying, and clearer definitions of what constitutes lobbying in the first place. It’s a bill that employs the old adage, “Follow the money,” to good effect for the public. And it’s a bill that tackled the uncomfortable issue of campaign finance where other proposals were silent.

All of the above reform measures now sit with their respective House-Senate conference committees, and are expected to be passed on to the Governor’s desk in advance of the budget. Are there differences between the House and Senate bills? Yes. Differing strengths to each? Yes. The conference committee members will have the opportunity to draw from the best of both bills on each topic over the next few weeks and I hope they will. But while tax votes always grab more headlines, the public deserves to know what the real record has been over the past five months. The Senate has undertaken meaningful work this spring to make “Reform Before Revenue” a reality, while also not shrinking from the responsibility to deal with our state’s budget crisis. As a first-termer, that’s a record of follow-through I’ve been pleased to see.

Sonia Chang-Díaz is the state senator for the Second Suffolk District.