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Massachusetts cabinet should be kept small - and effective

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SOME government cabinets are more visible and effective than others. During Gov. Michael Dukakis's first term in the mid-1970s, his cabinet met weekly in open session on Beacon Hill.

But times have changed, and open sessions of the governor's cabinet have become as rare as Republicans in the state's executive suite. While the Democratic governor and his top aides meet fairly regularly, usually twice a month, little is known about what is accomplished there.

Some superagency heads seem to be more comfortable airing their views behind closed doors where disagreements can be kept out of sight.

Unlike other state agencies, the cabinet has no formal status and therefore is not subject to state open-meeting law. It has as much authority, or influence, in decisionmaking as the governor allows. But the cabinet does keep him informed about administration affairs. And that may become increasingly important as his campaign for the presidential nomination moves forward and he is on the road more often.

Each of the 10 cabinet members heads a key agency with responsibilities often embracing a broad range of programs, involving millions of state tax dollars.

The intent of the 1969 statute providing for a cabinet was to reduce the number of departments, boards, and commissions reporting to the governor. That made sense then, when more than a hundred separate, diverse agencies reported directly to the chief executive.

In some instances, however, the cabinet approach has done little more than add another layer of authority to the executive branch, tending to make an already big government even bigger.

Originally there were to be nine so-called superagencies with cabinet status, whose heads reported to the governor. But before the first team was appointed by Republican Gov. Francis W. Sargent, the Democratic-controlled legislature added a 10th seat, that of the Elder Affairs secretary.

A decade later, state lawmakers abolished the Educational Affairs secretariat, an agency embracing programs and responsibilities involving the third largest segment of the state's annual operating budget. Democratic Gov. Edward J. King went along with the highly questionable 1981 move.

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