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Getting a handle on the cost of running Bay State government

HOW much does it cost to run Massachusetts for a week, a month, or even a year? Don't ask Gov. Michael S. Dukakis or anyone else in the commonwealth's government. The best even those close to the fiscal scene can manage is little more than a guess.

This situation, which should concern all taxpayers, may finally receive some overdue lawmaker attention, at least indirectly, through the fiscal-reform package now moving through the legislature.

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Chief architect Patricia McGovern of Lawrence and her colleagues on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, to their credit, have not promised that their blueprint will result in lower taxes, although that is a possibility. Instead, the focus is on bringing greater stability, accountability, and control to government spending, including to various public agencies now largely on their own.

The legislation would make the annual budget more realistic and complete, embracing not only appropriations for programs but also giving a dollars-and-cents picture of what the state's nearly 500 special agencies would be spending.

Putting agency budgets under the scrutiny of the governor's cabinet, with a requirement for public hearings, makes sense. It should shed a lot of light on what each of these low-visibility agencies is doing.

Another laudable feature of the legislation would clear the way for uniformity in hiring, contract awarding, and fiscal management among the authorities. Like the commonwealth itself, each authority would be required to operate on a July 1-June 30 fiscal year.

Certainly no less well intentioned are three other key segments of the legislation. They would provide independence to the comptroller, create a special fund to tide the commonwealth over during hard times, and set a state debt ceiling. Each, however, seems to be less than what may be needed.

The proposed $7 million debt cap, for example, does not cover borrowing by nonstate agencies on which the commonwealth's credit is pledged. Also, the lid could be raised by a two-thirds of both the Senate and House, with gubernatorial assent.

A more secure arrangement might be provision for a four-fifths lawmaker approval. Perhaps better still, why not require voter concurrence before the level of indebtedness could be increased? After all, it is taxpayer dollars that pay back what has been borrowed, with interest.

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In the case of the proposed ``rainy day'' account, the funding arrangement may be too loose. Instead of leaving it to what amounts to an appropriation from revenue surpluses, Massachusetts could do what some other states have done and prescribe that a minimum percentage of such excess funds be so diverted, until the reserve fund reached a certain level.

Any dipping into that account should require approval of four-fifths of the senators and representatives. This total could surely be managed in a real crisis, rather than perhaps one based on political considerations.

To ensure the complete independence and professionalism of the state comptroller, more than the proposed five-year term may be needed. And entrusting the appointment to a panel of the governor, attorney general, and state treasurer is less than perfect, even though it is an improvement on the current setup under which the choice is left entirely to the governor.

Instead, the selection might be better were applicants limited to those meeting specific training and experience requirements, chosen by not less than a four-fifths vote of a bigger and bipartisan board, with at least a couple of members from outside government with experience in financial management.

But even a competent and well-motivated comptroller can hardly do the best job if even remotely connected to the political power structure. He should only be removed for cause, and not for political reasons, and even then only after public hearings or court proceedings.

Impartiality and integrity should be the only rules for the person who will be the guardian of state funds. -- 30 --

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