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Report on Bay State consultant costs: why so long in coming?

ONE-party government may be costing Massachusetts taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year. That's what the recent critique on consultant contracts really adds up to.

While retiring state auditor John J. Finnegan can hardly be faulted for bringing out a report indicating perhaps widespread management abuses within the commonwealth's executive branch, his holding the criticism until after last month's state election raises serious political questions.

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If Gov. Michael S. Dukakis were not a fellow Democrat, would the auditor have brought forth the considerably less-than-flattering document before the Nov. 4 election in which the head of state breezed to reelection?

Nobody was more aware than Mr. Finnegan that release of his findings would hardly help the Dukakis cause and could well have cost the Massachusetts governor a slew of votes. Being the Democratic loyalist that he surely is, the auditor was not about to do something that might displease or alienate members of his party.

If the report was not finished in time for the election, why wasn't it? Surely it must have been obvious to Finnegan months ago that his aides were on to something that the voters of the state should know about when they went to the polls. Thus, as embarrassing as his findings might be to Mr. Dukakis or anyone in or out of state government, the auditor should have speeded up the process.

The report's issuance a month after the election is substantially less impressive than its conclusions, which in fairness to Finnegan, are anything but timid.

This suggests a possible change in the state constitution to provide either for two auditors - one from each party, as in Connecticut - or filling the office with a tenured certified public accountant selected through civil service, without regard to party ties or political popularity. Auditing government accounts is really all the people's business and should not be shaded by partisan considerations.

The state auditor's report on consultants suggests that, as well intentioned as the governor and members of his administration may be, certain job-filling practices smack of patronage.

There is nothing wrong with bringing specialists into state government as consultants, under personal-service contracts, for a limited period. Such temporary workers have been around for a long time and many perform essential services.

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But the more than 200 percent increase in consultant costs, from $126 million in 1975 to $384 million, as spotlighted in the Finnegan report, has to be disquieting to those concerned with holding state spending down.

Particularly questionable is the practice of hiring people through personal-services contracts, in what the auditor describes as a ``deliberate dodge'' to avoid adding regular state employees.

If more people are legitimately needed, the governor and his aides should not hesitate to seek authorization for the jobs. As the auditor's report infers, the administration should have been ``forthright in requesting more state employees'' when it could be justified.

While it is uncertain whether any laws have been broken through use of consultant contracts, this surely is a matter that should be looked into. Ordinarily the legislature could be expected to jump in and launch such a probe. It should be noted, however, that state lawmakers have made generous use of consultants. Legislators could hardly criticize the governor, especially a governor from the party of the vast majority of them, for doing something similar to what they do.

For the sake of a more open government, the state's executive and legislative branches should get together to end or radically reduce the use of consultants for jobs that probably should be filled by regular employees.

The extensive use of consultants to perform what in some instances are routine functions could hardly have gone on without the governor's knowledge and approval. And presumably the once sharp critic of patronage saw nothing wrong with it.

The auditor's report, involving a half-dozen separate state agencies, leaves little doubt that abuses uncovered may not be isolated cases. And as the findings suggest, Massachusetts has a state personnel system ``riddled with waste, abuse, and possible fraud.''

Those are serious criticisms and should not be ignored. What might be useful is a special blue-ribbon panel, similar to the one that probed the awarding of state building construction contracts several years ago. That commission's work led to changes in state law that overhauled the process for choosing those who design and build structures for the commonwealth.

Such a panel focusing on practices involving state 03 consulting contracts would help reinforce public confidence in Massachusetts government and quite possibly in its current head of state and his administration.

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