Reform before revenue — the legislative agenda this spring

Our mantra in the legislature this spring is “Reform before Revenue.”

It’s a moral principle:  You don’t ask for more money unless you are
providing fair value.  It’s a sound budgeting practice:  You can’t ask for
more money until you know what you really need.  It’s basic political
wisdom:  The voters need to have some confidence in how their money is being
spent or else they will resent any new or increased tax or fee.  Finally,
it’s a matter of self esteem.  Even the most seasoned and thick-skinned
legislators cringe inside when a new excess or scandal hits the airwaves.
And there have been too many recently.

So, over the past few weeks, the House has considered and approved three
significant reform bills, speaking to ethics reform, transportation reform
and pension reform.  Now, we are in the process of considering a very
austere budget proposal from the House Ways and Means Committee.  Next
month, we will be considering a substantial municipal relief package which
should include significant cost-saving tools.  All of these bills will take
their final form in quiet conference committee negotiations with the Senate.
Expect a series of very major changes to be finalized in June as the new
budget year approaches.

Most observers feel that, even after reforms are achieved, new revenues will
be needed to fill the long term gap in transportation funding (greatly
exacerbated by the Big Dig) and the state’s structural budget gap (mostly
caused by rising health care costs).  And, of course, although the federal
stimulus funding has helped greatly, many are concerned that the
Commonwealth’s substantial reserve fund will be insufficient to weather the
recession.

There is a lack of consensus in the House at this time as to whether we
should move during the budget debate to seriously consider new revenue
proposals or wait until reforms are fully accomplished.  Waiting later in
the year will allow the voters to see more substantial progress and each
passing week gives us more economic data for budgeting purposes.  But delay
also extends uncertainty for agencies and municipalities and the people that
they serve.

In the fall, we will return to some of the deeper reform issues that cannot
be addressed in the crunch of budgeting.   A blue ribbon commission will be
further studying public employee benefits.  And perhaps we will, with help
from Washington, make progress on the long term challenge of health care
cost control.

Although the start was a little slow as leadership changed, it seems clear
the legislature will have a productive spring season, and, although the pace
will slow again after the budget, there is much progress to come later.

See the also the attached fact sheet from the speaker’s office on this issue: Reform Fact Sheet.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

9 replies on “Reform before revenue — the legislative agenda this spring”

  1. i can’t tell from your website whether you voted for the sales tax or not, or what your position on it is…

  2. Will,

    Just a suggestion for budget time. Eve3ryone seems to be looking at ways to cut operating budgets of agencies. I think we should look at reducing capital expenses to reduce costs for this year and years to come.

    Primary is waste in the school building program, where the state offers virtually free money for communities to build unduly extravagant schools. The 200-million-dollar high school in Newton is now famous, while Wellesley has a $135 million version (complete with demolition of an historic building). Cambridge has a high school upgrade which is a budget buster,

    I remember fifteen or twenty years ago when i used to teach computers in old Catholic schools of 1916-1924 vintage. These buildings were fine, and at most needed an upgrade in the electrical systems. Education went on very well with lots of window space and natural illumination. There was no need for an entirely new building.

    Another area of waste is in new hospital construction, with older buildings being demolished even though there was only the very slightest deviation from modern standards of requirements of the state.

    Anothe area is highway construction, both roads and bridges. Most state and Federally supported road building is probably twice as expensive as it needs to be — being a mixture of projects that are 100 percent efficient and others that are a total waste of money ….. and everything in between. Governments tend to take every little project and make it into a bigger one, and to take every large project and make it into a Big Dig.

    We need better ways of identifying boondoggles in schools, hospitals and road building.

    Steve Kaiser

    ============

  3. My feelings on 3 topics:
    Revenue: Raise multiple fees and taxes a little like .25% rather than one thing 1%. Also make it so these increase expire on 12/31 of some year like 2012.

    Pensions: The system is totally corrupt and broken. William Bulger’s pension is exhibit A and today’s headlines are exhibits B-Z. Stop the thievery.

    Transportation: Raise the gas tax as high as needed to get rid of the MASS Pike Tolls. Keep the Bridge and Tunnel Tolls. If you do this even though this will cost me money as I rarely use the Pike I will feel better. The Pike tolls are a rip off. They were designed to be gone after 20 or 30 years and here it is 40 plus years later and we still have them. The MASS Pike tolls are a boondoggle.

  4. Only a fool would expect meaningful reform AFTER revenue approvals. In this one-party state with a deep tradition of legislator plunder, voters have become particularly cynical. The issue of ethics is active now ONLY due to aggressive reporting by the Boston Globe currently, and when that subsides (or when the Globe is laid to rest), we will return to business as usual.

    When the “good guys” in our legislature are shamelessly rooting at the trough as they are, you know that unethical plunder is routinely considered acceptable.

  5. Dear Will,

    I fear that my previous slam re: ethics reform may have unintentionally left the impression that I include you as one of “…the “good guys” in our legislature are shamelessly rooting at the trough as they are, you know that unethical plunder is routinely considered acceptable.”

    You inquired: Seeing myself as a “good guy”,
    I just have to ask what you mean by this statement?

    I also see you as a good guy, and the statement was not directed at you. I’ve never suspected you as being ethically challenged.

    My statement follows up previous comment to you about a couple of people recently in the headlines who I know to be “good guys” who have behaved shamelessly regarding padding their own pensions and related dipping into the public treasure. I appreciate that you receive volumes of constituent mail and may not recall my recent comment in this regard.

    Heard enough stories from these two fellows to appreciate that “everyone does it”. Now I don’t literally believe that, and I am not making any accusations towards you at all. But I am certain that you are aware of what routinely goes on up there. I had the personal privilege of turning down an all expenses paid trip to Italy — quite an unnecessary one — with a former Rep. who pressed me to go, since he told me that he’d never get it past the treasurer of our agency unless I went along. He was right — he didn’t get it past her. And I wasn’t offered any other trips.

    I applaud those who stand on principle, and I trust that you are one.

    The cynicism of the electorate has hardened in our expectation of norms of ethical behavior on Beacon Hill. I haven’t seen any indications of any fundamental change– and the “good guys” who want to get things done often have to play the game. That’s politics anywhere to a certain extent. In Massachusetts, essentially a single party state, those games seem to be played large.

    I am convinced that Massachusetts requires significant special funding for the needs of the moment. Tough for citizens to feel honorable about paying our share when we know that the headlines of today are simply an indicator of what goes on all the time. We need to see honorable Representatives including yourself stand up for clean government now . There never will be a time that people love taxes and won’t argue about what is truly necessary, what is a good use of public funds, etc…. but we are way beyond that discussion.

    Representative Brownsberger, if you feel my comment on your web site was intended as criticism of you then perhaps others may interpret it the same way. I will immediately seek to correct that impression by sharing this message there.

    1. Thanks for the clarification. For what it’s worth, I actually think that most of the folks in key legislative leadership positions right now get this issue. Over the long term that’s the best prescription for change. It doesn’t happen over night, but I am a hopeful person and I am hopeful on this issue.

  6. After so many years of “free lunch” administrations have left our infrastructure in tatters, we clearly need some new revenue. The gas tax has needed to increase to keep up with wear and tear of New England winters. But the Governor is right that reform MUST come first so that it will get done. Another point: 351 cities and towns is far too many for a small state – there should be consolidations or at least more regionalization to improve efficiency of governance.

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