McGee hedges on overturning union contract awards

Says Baker proposal on arbitrator rulings still in committee


THE SENATE’S POINT MAN on transportation issues hedged on Thursday on whether lawmakers will give the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board the power to reject an arbitrator’s union contract award.

Sen. Thomas McGee of Lynn, the cochair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said the Senate sees no need to appoint a fiscal control board for the T because a general manager could do nearly everything a board could do.

The Senate Ways and Means budget proposal expands the size of the MassDOT board from seven to 11 members and places the transportation secretary as the chair. The legislation also gives the secretary the power to hire and fire the T’s general manager, but the measure does not allow the T to exceed its fare cap or dispense with an existing laws restricting privatization of services, as Gov. Charlie Baker requested.

“The general manager could do all of those things today. And the one thing that the general manager wouldn’t be able to do is raise fares,” McGee said. He called the proposed control board a “bureaucratic barrier.”

Baker’s proposal for a fiscal control board would also give the body the power to reject an arbitrator’s union contract award. Asked whether that same authority would be granted the MassDOT board that now oversees the T, McGee said, “The rest of the legislation is still in committee.”

Reacting Wednesday to McGee’s rejection of a number of other proposals, Baker said, “I’m hopeful that the Senate recognizes that the MBTA is an organization in significant stress and that in the end the Senate is not going to try to pretend saying the word ‘reform’ a lot without actually doing any reform is going to give our administration or anybody else the tools that they need and that we need to truly fix the T.”

McGee, who also heads the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said last winter’s abnormal snow that sidelined much of the MBTA’s rail service would have hampered any transit agency, and he said privatized T service worked worse than the service staffed by public employees.

“The one entity that probably had the worst performance of all was the commuter rail, which is a private operation,” McGee said. The governor and the House are both on record supporting lifting procedures required before the privatization of MBTA services, while Senate Democrats have rejected attempts to undermine the law, which is named after Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton.

The tracks, facilities, and trains that carry commuter rail passengers are all owned by the state, which is responsible for capital repairs, but the service is operated by Keolis Commuter Services, a contractor, which handles maintenance of vehicles and infrastructure.

McGee said there was a “major lack of investment” in the commuter rail. “When we talk about reform, we’re talking about reform and revenue,” he said.

Asked when the Senate would propose increasing revenues for the MBTA, McGee said, “The bill is still in committee. We’re going to have other hearings related to the legislation.”

Legislation increasing taxes must originate in the House, where Speaker Robert DeLeo has said this year’s budget would be balanced without any increases in taxes and where House Majority Leader Ron Mariano said giving additional money to the T before it demonstrates it would be spent well would be “kind of crazy.”

House members outnumber the Senate on joint committees, such as Transportation where Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett is McGee’s co-chairman.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg has interpreted the annual budget bill as qualifying for change to tax policy, which DeLeo disputes.

McGee said he is not ready to say what piece of legislation might be used to attempt to increase revenues for the T.

“We have a bill in committee. We’ve talked about reform. The panel’s report talked about reform and revenue. We need to have an ongoing discussion about that. I’m not ready to say what that would be or what vehicle we would use or not,” McGee said.