Entries by Mary Connaughton

The Mass. Pike is in for some massive disruption. Are we ready?

The Boston Globe By Mary Connaughton and Jim Aloisi May 31, 2019 Beginning this summer, commuters are in for longer rides as the Massachusetts Department of Transportation prepares to extend the Prudential tunnel under parts of Massachusetts Avenue and Boylston Street to make way for an air-rights real estate development. Extending the tunnel involves upgrading and expanding ventilation systems — fans, controls and other electrical components — as well as installing piles and set beams to support a deck. These activities require Massachusetts Turnpike lane closures, both temporary and long-term, to create work areas. And with work areas come speed reductions to ensure worker safety over the estimated 16-month project. The project will, inescapably, worsen traffic conditions on a stretch […]

Mass Pike rebuild shouldn’t impact Worcester commuters, but it will

This op-ed originally appeared in The Worcester Telegram & Gazette May 3, 2019 The sleeping giant of MetroWest and Worcester commuters is about to be stirred, thanks to an ill-conceived plan by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation that would severely impact their daily rides to and from Boston. As part of the plan to straighten the Mass Pike in Allston, the elevated portion of road known as the Boston University viaduct will be demolished and the roadway rebuilt at-grade. The abutting Soldiers Field Road and the nearby Paul Dudley White Bike Path will also be affected. The project is estimated to begin sometime after the summer of 2021 and completed in 8-10 years, but we know what can happen to […]

True Transparency Needed for SFI’s

Pioneer has long called for the Statements of Financial Interests (SFIs) that elected officials and political candidates are required to file to be available online.  The State Ethics Commission must have been listening to us and other transparency enthusiasts that called on the Commonwealth to catch up to the times. While the forms can now be accessed online, there is still much to do to improve public access to these most important documents. Transparency is the most fundamental tool a democracy has to ensure that its stewards have the public interest at heart, rather than their own self-interest.  We have seen far too many breaches of ethics in recent years on Beacon Hill and one way to prevent them is […]

Love It When the T Listens!

It seems MBTA officials were listening to this March segment of Bloomberg Radio’s Bay State Business. During the program, I was discussing simple ways to increase MBTA revenue without imposing an across-the-board fare hike. Raising fares may make sense in some scenarios, but where there is excess capacity, increasing ridership is a far more effective solution to reduce operating deficits.  You don’t jack up the prices of a product that isn’t selling. The example I presented was weekend commuter rail fares.  My family of four, which includes two teenage boys, would pay a total of $78 for the round trip between Boston and Framingham on a Saturday.  That’s $9.50 each way for all four of us plus $4 for parking.  […]

Top 10 Government Transparency Resolutions for 2018

We hear the word transparency a lot these days. Whether it’s the public demanding it or public figures claiming to embody it, transparency is rightly viewed as an admirable pursuit. When it comes to government, transparency fosters civic engagement and promotes public trust. Openness in government is the cornerstone of a healthy, vibrant democracy. In 2016, Beacon Hill took some steps to promote transparency with public records law reform, but fell short of what Pioneer had hoped for. The Commonwealth continues to advance in terms of spending transparency and, as Pioneer reported, Massachusetts municipalities were more transparent than their national peers when it came to disclosing the details of their bids for Amazon’s second headquarters – kudos to them! There was […]

Beacon Hill Needs to Get This Right – Right Now

No one said it better than Justice Louis Brandeis. “Sunshine is said to be the best of disinfectants, electric light the most efficient policeman.”  If today’s story on former State Senator Brian Joyce, indicted today for allegedly collecting about $1 million in bribes and kickbacks, isn’t a wake-up call for the legislators to fix the sad state of government transparency in Massachusetts, they will forever remain in a state of blissful slumber. Pioneer Institute has been a leading voice for open and accountable government in Massachusetts. Statements of Financial Interest, or SFIs for short, are a cornerstone of political ethics: All state and county officials, as well as political candidates, are required to annually disclose their private business associations and […]

Understanding the Downgrade

S&P Global Ratings (S&P) recently downgraded Commonwealth and certain other Massachusetts agency bond ratings one notch from AA+ to AA. The AA rating is still considered a high mark in terms of the investment grade of the bonds, meaning S&P believes the state will meet its debt obligations.  While it is fair to say that the downgrade is not a calamity, it is certainly a warning signal as to what could happen should the state continue practices that do not lead to long-term fiscal health.  It’s a reality check to which we should pay close attention. As shown in Figure 1, the state’s S&P rating on Massachusetts bonds is still well above 2001 levels and is now at the same […]

Closing Catholic Schools in Massachusetts Can Be Avoided

The Archdiocese of Boston recently announced that after operating for 93 years, the Saint Clement School in Medford will be closing its doors at the end of this school year due to a persistent decline in enrollment.  That means a multitude of students who believed they would be following the thousands before them as Saint Clement’s graduates will instead be tearfully giving up the maroon for colors unknown. Saint Clement High School is part of the Central Catholic League and I’ve enjoyed watching the players compete against my son’s school, Marian High School, in Framingham.  The school’s closing hits close to home. Saint Clement’s closing does not represent an isolated example.  Enrollment in Boston Archdiocese schools has dropped 21 percent […]

Op-ed: Neglect creates pension tsunami

A version of this op-ed appeared in The Berkshire Eagle, The Salem News, The Gloucester Times, the Patriot Ledger, The Brockton Enterprise, and The New Bedford Standard-Times. BOSTON — Moody’s Investors Service estimates that total U.S. state and local government pension unfunded liability will reach $1.75 trillion this year and the commonwealth is hardly immune from this alarming trend. The Massachusetts Teachers Pension Fund pays out over $2.6 billion in annual benefits and has barely half the money it needs to meet its long-term obligations. Many of the commonwealth’s more than 100 local pension systems are in a similar condition. This isn’t just a nightmare for the commonwealth, local governments and state taxpayers; more than 10 percent of all adults […]

Sunshine Week 2017: Highlights from Pioneer’s Government Transparency Team

It’s Sunshine Week once again! While it may fall close to spring break, it means something even better than Coppertone and Daytona Beach. Each year during Sunshine Week, Pioneer reviews the government transparency work it has completed through the year to highlight efforts to bring greater public accountability to Massachusetts. Our objective is to have the Commonwealth rank among the nation’s most transparent states; while there has been progress when it comes to bringing sunshine to Beacon Hill, we still have an uphill climb. So put your sandals away, get a cup of hot coffee, and take a look at some of Pioneer’s highlights: So you leave the doctor’s office, prescription in hand, and you want to take it to […]

The Clock is Ticking…….

The clock is ticking towards December 30, 2017.  As part of the 2016 public records reform legislation, An Act to Improve Public Records, a special legislative committee was established to “examine the accessibility of information concerning the legislative process of the general court and the expansion of the definition of public records.” The establishment of the committee is a win for government transparency advocates. The committee, made of members of the legislature, can solicit input from journalists, public policy research groups and other individuals interested in the process. One of the specific missions of the committee is to determine the constitutionality of subjecting the Governor’s Office, the legislature and the judiciary to public records laws.  The law, as presently written, […]

Op-ed: Justification For 40% Legislative Leadership Raises Is Political Voodoo

When doing the people’s will is secondary to legislators’ self-interest, how strong is our democracy? The state Legislature is on the verge of overriding the Governor’s veto of legislation that includes sizable pay raises for state and legislative leaders. Their actions on this front will answer the democracy question. Since legislators can’t raise their base pay, the hikes are limited to leadership positions in the form of increased legislative stipends. Base pay increases are formulaic and tied to the state’s median household income. The Boston Globe reported on several questionable aspects of the bill. It contains an “emergency preamble,” which means the raises would take effect immediately. The legislation also includes pay hikes for the judiciary, which, due to a clause in the state Constitution, makes it challenging at best to reverse via initiative petition. And because committee chairs and other leadership positions have not yet been officially selected, legislators don’t need to worry about violating conflict of interest laws for voting on their own financial interests. […]

Our Government Transparency Resolutions for 2017

Although transparency was the expression of choice on Beacon Hill in 2016, the year fell short of what could have been a transformative period of government openness. Long overdue public records law reform was the most dramatic action taken by the Legislature in this vein, but compromise ultimately weakened what otherwise could have been very toothy legislation to advance the public’s interest. Nevertheless, progress was made. Pioneer Institute has long supported many elements of the enacted legislation, including subjecting the MBTA Retirement Board to public records law, making its operations transparent, establishing a public records officer for every agency, promoting electronic records in response to requests, imposing stronger penalties on delinquent agencies, promoting electronic disclosure, and reducing costs to obtain public records. Historically, Massachusetts has ranked at or near […]

Public Records Reform: Our Take

The public records bill that was signed into law by Governor Baker last week and takes effect January 1, 2017 contains significant improvements to existing law and will no doubt improve the Commonwealth’s poor national rankings for government transparency.  The legislators who crafted it have done the state a service. But there is more work to do – Massachusetts should hold the highest ranking.  Transparency, after all, measures the health and vibrancy of our democracy. Pioneer Institute has long supported many elements of the bill, including subjecting the MBTA Retirement Board to public records law and making its operations transparent, establishing a public records officer for every agency, promoting electronic records in response to requests, imposing stronger penalties on delinquent […]

OpEd: Shine a light upon MBTA pension fund

By Mary Z. Connaughton and Charles Chieppo Guest Columnists Originally published in The Berkshire Eagle, the Milford Daily News, New Bedford Standard-Times, and The Lowell Sun. It would be easy just to shake your head and turn the page upon learning that the MBTA Retirement Fund (MBTARF) is underfunded by nearly $868 million. Unfortunately, you cannot. Every year, the pension plan receives tens of millions of state dollars that flow through the MBTA. The T, in turn, has a contractual obligation to bankroll three quarters of any shortfall. Read this entire article in The Berkshire Eagle, the Milford Daily News and the New Bedford Standard-Times.

Sunshine Week 2016: Highlights from Pioneer’s Government Transparency Team

Each Sunshine Week, Pioneer shares highlights of its government transparency work completed over the year. Our objective is to have Massachusetts rank among the nation’s most transparent states. It’s a formidable goal because the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press currently ranks our state at or near rock bottom in the nation for government transparency. Fortunately, we are not alone in this. Transparency advocates across the state stand united in this vital effort. We will likely see improvements to public records laws in the near future. But we can’t let reform end there; transparency promotes an engaged citizenry, and an engaged citizenry is key to a healthy democracy. And there is still much work to be done. Here are some […]

Our Government Transparency Resolutions for 2016

While it’s possible that 2016 will see an historic surge in policies and laws that promote transparency in Massachusetts, the odds are we won’t see a quantum leap. But as we dig deeper into the draft of the public records reform bill released by the Senate yesterday, we are encouraged that, after decades of inaction, Beacon Hill is more tuned in to the public’s demand for transparency – but there is much more work to do. With Massachusetts ranking at or near rock bottom nationally in terms of open government, many are eager to shed the dark veils that mar our governmental processes so the state can assume its rightful place as a leader in good government. As we have traditionally […]

Massachusetts Needs Its Own CBO

State Senator Jamie Eldridge is on to something.  The State House News Service recently reported that he filed a bill to bring greater transparency to the legislative process by establishing an agency similar to the Congressional Budget Office to put a concrete price tag on legislation before it is passed.  This is an idea Pioneer has long held to be of great merit – so much so that we included it in our recently published Agenda For Leadership. While the details of the bill differ somewhat from those in our proposal, we agree with Senator Eldridge – there needs to be an independent office to perform this vital function. Pioneer believes the office must be truly independent – not an […]

A Step Forward on Meaningful Public Records Reform?

Yesterday’s Boston Globe editorial has it right – the time for the legislature to act on meaningful public records reform is now, while at least a modicum of momentum remains for its enactment.  Waiting much longer likely signals the bill’s death knell. Sadly, though, if a bill does emerge from the House Ways and Means Committee it may be something far less than what we’d hope for.  The bill proposed by Rep. Peter Kocot, which drew swarms of government transparency enthusiasts to Beacon Hill to testify in its support, contained meaningful tools to promote open government.  Among them: penalties for untimely compliance, reduced costs for requestors, requirements for digital responses and provisions for agencies to reimburse legal fees to those […]

Our Letter to the Open Meeting Advisory Commission

Public trust and citizen engagement is fundamental in a healthy government.  Transparency engenders both. The Massachusetts legislature is one of the minority of state legislatures in the country where open meeting law doesn’t apply.  In fact, according to a 2011 study by the Reporters’ Committee of Freedom of the Press, it’s one of only 19 legislatures in the nation that isn’t bound to give the public access to its meetings. Perhaps even more noteworthy, according to the same study, is that Massachusetts is one of only six states where state legislatures are not subject to both open meeting and public records law.  In this day and age of transparency, we think more openness in the legislature will promote public trust […]

A Pretty Much Guaranteed Free Ride

There’s no such thing as a free ride. Ask any accountant and he or she will tell you that there’s always a cost involved. Some businesses give free samples to market their products – a cost to grow revenue.  Others give their products or services away because of inadequate controls. The MBTA falls into the latter category. There is a growing buzz about sporadic fare collection on the commuter rail.  Riders may or may not be charged because of the number of conductors or riders on any given train. Non-pass holding riders know the odds well – in time, they’ll get to work or home without forking over a dime. It’s a waiting game. But there are some pretty much […]

6 Ways to Improve Government Transparency

Mary Connaughton, Pioneer Institute’s Director of Government Transparency, submitted testimony on May 26, 2015, before the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, regarding government transparency on Bills H2755, H2804, S1700, H2732, H2758, H2772, H2822, H2717, S1633, S1641, S1676, S1638, H2802 (all of which advance government transparency). Download her testimony below:

There Is Little Appeal to the Current Use of Binding Arbitration at the T

Eliminating final and binding arbitration at the MBTA is key part of Governor Baker’s reform proposal.  His bill does not call for ending collective bargaining and arbitration at the T, but instead for applying the same collective bargaining/arbitration law that applies to other public employee unions at state agencies and municipalities, including at police and fire departments. The Governor’s task force explained it this way: The MBTA has the only public union in the Commonwealth with binding arbitration settlements which are not subject to approval (i.e. by legislative, board, or municipality). The current collective bargaining process creates inefficiencies and has delayed recent legislative reforms.  Many existing labor contracts are automatically extended until a new agreement is reached (‘evergreen provisions’), exposing […]

Connaughton, Sivolella: Challenging the Legislature’s Secrecy

By Mary Z. Connaughton and John Sivolella Guest Columnists This article originally appeard in the Milford Daily News. Read it in its entirety. Posted Apr. 19, 2015 at 7:13 AM There is a lot of justifiable talk about the need for government transparency these days, but the concept is far from new. In fact, the first Massachusetts transparency laws date back to 1851. It was in that year when the notion of government records shifted from being the property of government to belonging to the public. In 1973, the state legislature expanded the definition of what constituted a public record and in 1975, it enacted open meeting laws. Together, these transparency laws were meant to promote a more effective, accountable […]

Public Left in Dark on Carmen’s Union Contract

Background Over the past two months, Pioneer Institute has focused substantial resources on analyzing the MBTA’s operations, finances, pension system and governance (leadership and accountability).  A key piece of our work has included comparisons of the Authority to other American transit systems.  We have provided comparisons to all systems, but have focused on like or peer systems.  We have also progressed from system-wide (all-mode) analyses to in-depth, mode-specific research. Prior Findings Using transit agency peers as defined by Integrated National Transit Database Analysis System (INTDAS), Pioneer debunked the myth that the MBTA is underfunded.  We’ve shown that the T expanded faster than any other system since 1991, the earliest year for which information is available in the National Transit Database, […]

And What About the T’s Retirement Costs?

Pension and other post-employment benefit (OPEB) costs significantly impact the MBTA’s financial position.  There’s been much talk about the T’s retirement costs but relatively little about how those costs and their funding rank among other large transit systems.  The MBTA has not set assets aside to fund OPEB obligations and is underfunding its pension costs. Neither is unusual, but what sets the T is apart is that it is significantly underfunding both. We reviewed each of the following systems’ 2013 audited financial statements to obtain data (not all systems have yet made 2014 statements available) Here’s how the T compares with pension information: *may include multiple pension plans The MBTA is the lowest of the largest transit systems in funding […]

Projections Matter and the MCCA Got it All Wrong

The Boston Business Journal was dead-on when Craig Douglas wrote, “the BCEC’s expansion plan is a case in point for why Massachusetts is in such a financial quagmire today. It’s had virtually no relevant financial vetting. Its cost projections are Big Dig-esque.” His case in point was the recent room-night figures reported in the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority’s annual report.  “In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the BCEC’s slate of events directly generated 264,669 hotel room nights — its second lowest 12-month total since 2007. The Hynes generated another 208,000, or half of what it managed to book in 2001.” Charlie Chieppo, the master of all things Convention Center, put the grim hard numbers into further context in a […]

Time to Fine Keolis

My train was on time this morning, no T-alerts popped into my email and, at long last, I enjoyed an express trip to Boston.  For that, I am delighted. Still, we can’t let the last couple of woeful months on the commuter rail melt away like the snow. MBTA commuter rail trains were late 72 percent of the time during morning rush hours in February, even though a much limited train schedule was implemented during the second half of the month. Delayed and cancelled trains exacted heavy tolls on commuters, employers and families. With near-record snow fall and freezing temperatures, Mother Nature wreaked havoc on the system. Keolis, which operates commuter rail for the T, blamed bad weather for failing signals, switches […]

Pioneer’s Transparency Update: Sunshine Week Edition

To some, it may seem insignificant in that police departments have wide discretion in responding to public records requests, or that a school district can charge exorbitant fees to the public for document requests. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that state agencies routinely respond to public records requests well after the mandated ten days, or that our state legislature exempted itself from sunshine laws. But when you view government transparency through a wider lens, these seemingly minute events or business-as-usual exemptions take on grave collective significance. Our democracy is only as strong as our will to hold government accountable.  Lack of disclosure stunts the public discourse that is essential in a government of the people, by the people and for the people. […]

How is Keolis Fined for Late Commuter Rail Trains?

Your toes are numb, the faces around you sullen and the service alert on your phone says the next train will arrive at a different time than the LED screen overhead.  The train you planned on taking to work broke down and was cancelled.  You’d warm up at the local diner if you knew the next train was delayed by 67 minutes like the LED screen said, but is missing it worth the gamble? Traveling by commuter rail defies predictability these days.   Thankfully, the MBTA toughened the penalty clause enforcement with its contract with Keolis, the new commuter rail operator.  Heavy fines for poor performance have already made headlines.  The fear of further penalties should incentivize better performance. But will […]