Role Play Reflections: Trimet Budget Advisory Committee (Part 1)

Here are some of my reflections on our  Trimet Budget Advisory Committee meeting role play activity:

Framing is Power.

First of all, TriMet held the power by framing the problem as a budget crisis/shortfall in the first place. No one got to see the budget, which is several hundred pages long. It would take months for someone to pore through the past budgets to start to see what projects are funded, which ones are cut.

In reality, the amount of money projected as declines in payroll tax revenue and federal grants, is relatively small in comparison with TriMet’s $400 million budget. Cutting back or postponing other big-budget items (like capital projects) are not under debate.  The interest alone for the loans for recent light rail projects, is $17 million a year, according to OPAL. These capital projects may be good long-term investments, but they’re not even included within the debate.

Budgets are not “Objective,” and have particular assumptions and interests embedded within them.

There are a lot of assumptions built into the budget, decisions which ultimately determine whether or not there is a projected budget shortfall at all. Trimet was able to avoid discussion over the assumptions of the budget (payroll tax growth rate assumptions, ridership assumptions, what’s an appropriate level for contingency fund, etc.). Later of course, two of their three key assumptions were proven false, and we won’t know about the third assumption on payroll tax revenue until the end of the fiscal year. As this article in the Portland Mercury and this article in Portland Afoot  “Trimet to riders: OK, maybe we didn’t need that fare hike after all” point out:

Late this spring, TriMet’s board approved $12 million in cuts and revenue-raising measures, based on a handful of assumptions: 1) Its payroll tax revenue would come in $3 million lower than needed, 2) $4 million would be lost because of anticipated cuts to federal transit funding, and 3) TriMet’s impasse with its union over lush healthcare benefits could eat up $5-10 million. But then, over the summer, the union fight was resolved in TriMet’s favor, and the feds passed a transportation bill without a $4 million cut (though the money hasn’t been distributed yet). As for the payroll tax, for the past two years TriMet underestimated the amount of money that would come in from the tax—low-balling the number by $7.7 million in 2011 and an additional $15.8 million in 2012.

TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch says TriMet is sticking with its budget cuts for the time being, in part because that $4 million from the feds probably won’t come down the pipeline until spring at the earliest. “As we see the economy bounce up and down, we are closely monitoring the revenues,” Fetsch says via email.

It seems to me that the real reason TriMet wanted to manufacture this ‘budget crisis’ is because they haven’t saved enough to pay for the increasing healthcare costs of their employees.

‘Wedge’ issues like union healthcare benefits can distract attention from thinking about other options.

In our role play activity, the TriMet reps were clear about blaming the greedy bus drivers, claiming that their generous healthcare package was the source of the budget shortfall. They were very effective about pitting bus drivers interests against bus riders.

This excellent, very informative article by Joe Rose in the Oregonian which details some of the history behind the union benefits struggle suggests that past TriMet leadership may have been irresponsible in signing a six-year union contract that locked in benefits and salaries. It’s clearly complicated, but TriMet agreed to these benefits, and now it’s decrying ‘greedy drivers’ as if they had no part in the matter, and using it as an reason to cut service and raise fares. Trimet drivers get a decent, but not exorbitant salary and generous healthcare benefits, in exchange for a very stressful and physically demanding job.

Because so many people are struggling right now, it’s easy for TriMet to focus anger and resentment on the drivers, which distracts attention from the myriad other ways in which TriMet can either cut costs or generate new income, such as Park n Ride fees, etc. This is also related to framing the debate. I notice that the public conversations in Portland did not go into ‘big picture’ solutions like a carbon tax. That’s something I would like to see. Rather than force transit-dependent riders to bear the costs of increased expenses, including the expansion of a rail system to woo ‘choice’ riders, I’d like to see some of the groups in Portland talk about other policy mechanisms that could distribute the costs of building out rail to the entire population which benefits whether or not they ride public transit.