Joan Vennochi was not shying from this question in her recent column about Baker's latest quixotic quest for Governor, but how much blame should Baker get for the Turnpike?
While it's true that the MTA is an independent authority within Massachusetts and has a large say over its own finances, that rings a hollow excuse. It's not as if the administration didn't know what was going on and couldn't do anything to stop it. Baker and the rest of the administration could have exposed what the Turnpike was doing if it was so opposed to the practice. They didn't. Doesn't that speak volumes?
Baker served eight years in state government, first as secretary of human services and then as secretary of administration and finance. During the Weld/Cellucci years, Big Dig costs rose and the state borrowed money to cover them.
"When Charlie was head of A&F, the state borrowed against future federal highway aid. We're paying for that now," said Michael Widmer, who heads the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and supports a 25-cents-per-gallon gas tax hike.
If Baker runs for governor, Widmer said, it is fair to ask, "How much of what happened on his watch is what we're having to pay for now?"
I think former State Treasurer Joseph Malone (R) would say so.
In November 1997, two months before he launched an ad campaign blasting Kerasiotes, Malone was visited by members of the Artery Business Committee (ABC) and other business backers of the Big Dig. Malone, who now oversees business development for a Cambridge dotcom firm, recalls what happened: “They tell me that when Bill Weld and John Kerry were running for the Senate, we got their word that they wouldn’t bring up the Big Dig as an issue. They both stuck with that promise. Joe, why don’t you do the same thing? I said, You’re in the wrong place if you think I’m going to let this boondoggle get further and further out of control. You mark my words. This is going to get to the point where everyone will say, How did we sleep through this whole thing?”Are we really to believe that the Weld and Celluci administrations, who were trying to bury the Big Dig as a political issue and calling it 'on time and on budget,' bear none of the responsibility? If so, how does Charlie Baker avoid any of the blame when he was as one of the most influential members of the Administration? At the very least, Baker could have used his considerable respect within state government as a platform to expose what was going on. The fact that he didn't means he was either complicit in the arrangement or wasn't even paying attention to Big Dig and Turnpike finances whilst he was Secretary of Administration and Finance. Either way, those mistakes are damning.
“Their whole message was, Joe, the federal government is picking up 80 percent [of the project’s costs] and that’s good for everyone,” Malone adds. “So the spin was that Malone is going to end up screwing up our federal funding…for his own political benefit.”
Far from retreating, Malone kept up his warnings, and Cellucci kept responding that the project was on time and on budget.
The Turnpike is now likely on the hook for $400 million in surprise debt. They're paying $130 million a year today to pay for yesteryear's salaries. A lot of these things happened at the very time Charlie Baker was one of the most powerful people in state government, heading up A&F. Of all those who could be held responsible for these costly failures, Charlie Baker may not be the most guilty person of the bunch, but at the very least he must explain everything he knew and when he knew it before he ever considers truly pursuing state office.