A New Era of Pension Transparency In Boston? Not So Fast.

Two silhouetted men shaking hands in front of an American flag

Last week, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) agreed to disclose its member’s pension benefits and to beef up its previously inadequate annual financial reports.

The retirement fund, called the “T” Fund, is among the most tight-lipped in the country because it is not required to follow public records laws.

But a Boston Herald editorial warns us not to cheer for this measure quite yet. The newspaper calls the agreement a “half-measure” that could easily be reversed. From the Boston Herald:

A deal struck between the MBTA and a union representing 3,000 of its workers to disclose more information about employee pensions is a disappointing half-measure. A mere contractual agreement, it could easily be revised in the future. To ensure public access to this vital financial information the disclosure agreement needs the force of law.

Data on T pensions has long been shrouded in secrecy. The MBTA retirement fund was originally formed as a “private” trust, and state courts have upheld that status. That means neither MBTA fare-payers nor state taxpayers have the legal right to data on the pensions that they subsidize.

Amid public pressure over the fund’s secret operations — the board’s investment decisions are private, too, and its meetings aren’t open to the public — Beacon Hill last year passed a law intended to subject the T’s pension fund to state public records and open meeting laws.

But opponents of the new requirement resisted the effort, and actually succeeded in convincing the state’s supervisor of public records that the fund still wasn’t required to open its books.

So much energy wasted, all to keep the public from examining data that should be available for anyone who’s ever swiped a Charlie Card to examine.

The deal struck last week requires the union to turn over data on employee pensions to the T monthly, and the T will then post it on the state’s Open Checkbook website. We are supposed to greet this development with cheers.

But we’d be curious to know what T management had to give up during negotiations to secure the agreement. And we’d note once again that a provision like this negotiated into a labor contract could easily be negotiated out in the future.

The “T” fund is still refusing to disclose documents related to investment losses associated with certain hedge funds.

 

Photo by Truthout.org via Flickr CC License

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