The following piece was submitted to the Belmont Citizen Herald for publication on September 10:
Casinos, health care cost control, further pension reform – these are the major issues that the legislature is likely to address this fall after we resolve the Kennedy succession. The theme? Continued financial pressure.
Even as the economy recovers, state revenues are expected to remain weak through the next fiscal year and the bigger picture of state finances remains grim: A huge backlog of road, bridge and other infrastructure maintenance, a bad debt hangover from the Big Dig, off-balance-sheet health care commitments to retirees and a structural deficit created primarily by rapidly rising health care costs (which amount to roughly 1/3 of the state’s budget).
The financial woes of the state – which is doing well compared to many of its 49 peers – reflect the long term trends of the American economy. Over the past few decades, under the pressure of automation and international competition, many stable good paying jobs have disappeared. A few people have been doing very well in the changing economy, but most families are not achieving the income growth necessary to save for the future and support the lifestyle to which they aspire. Families feeling financial pressure tend to favor tax limitation, so many government entities in America are deferring important investments and/or running substantial deficits.
In this context, health care cost control has to be at the top of the list – it’s a national issue, but also a state issue. In Massachusetts, we’ve put in place an approach to insuring all citizens, but we have not remotely solved the health care problem – rapidly rising health care costs are continuing to crowd out other important state priorities.
Public employee costs are actually a relatively small part of the state budget, 20 to 25 percent, but any excesses in this area understandably anger voters who are themselves stressed financially. In the spring, we picked off most of the true abuses in the pension system, but there are still legitimate features of the public pension system that can sometimes produce results that seem unduly sweet. We need to limit the operation of system rules that can occasionally create pensions that substantially exceed contributions to the pension system and we need to cap pensions at some reasonable level. Above a that level, public pensions should work just like private 401K plans – you get out in exactly what you put in plus investment return. As a member of the legislature’s public service committee, I’ve been watching closely the work of the divided blue ribbon commission on state pensions that has been meeting this summer. I’m hopeful we can get a bill to the floor over the next few months.
The casino issue is likely to return. It was defeated handily last session, but it will be interesting to see how many members are inclined to change their votes against casino – I’m not seeing reasons to change mine. The state needs more revenue, but casinos are an ugly approach to taxation.
Three other important issues that have some probability of movement in the fall are safe driving, pandemic flu response, and moderation of our mandatory drug sentencing policies. The last is a money issue – we are sending some people away for too long and this wastes money.
That’s the big picture. As your state representative, I spend much of my time on more local issues and more narrowly targeted bills. I work to document the issues that I am working on through my website, www.willbrownsberger.com. The website allows input and comment and I very much appreciate interaction through that channel because it is fully transparent for all.