Ambitions for what Government can do about big problems have become severely limited. Even as the times still beckon for new and creative solutions (on unemployment, the environment, infrastructure, housing…to name a few), the fiscal wreckage the Great Recession has left behind has become a barrier to continued government activism.
Hard times harden minds and shape politics. Despite the fact that it was Government that prevented another Depression and financial catastrophe (and kept unemployment below 12%), the hypocritical Fox-twisted, Beck-led backlash against public intervention has made deficits and spending bad words again.
Proof positive of the shifting sands is the way incumbent politicians are running for office this year. In that vein, I read with interest this article by (the generally excellent) Statehouse News Service’s Jim O’Sullivan about how Governor Patrick is running on his record as opposed to presenting a new expansive agenda.
I tend to agree with the Patrick strategy so far. In the current political climate, and with an uncertain economic trajectory to contend with (and of course another sizeable budget shortfall in the offing next year,) making a lot of hard commitments may not be politically beneficial. As a sitting Governor he hasn’t had to roll out eye catching initiatives. Just doing the job – pushing good legislation to his desk; enacting the budget; winning education dollars from DC; and managing a potential hurricane – have all kept him in the headlines of late. The Governor has a strong record to run on. Looking ahead he also has a set of complex reforms to implement, meaning his second term agenda is already pretty full.
That all said: I can’t help wondering what another four years of Governor Patrick will bring. I’m sure that he has his administration working on a term-two agenda regardless of what he has made public. He may also seek to unveil some new initiatives now that the ‘real’ campaigning has begun and people are paying attention.
For my part, I’ve brainstormed some high-level ideas (some would say dreams) I think would be nice to see achieved or at least attempted, as follows:
* Eliminating the structural budget deficit over the next term – progressively. This won’t be easy but I think our current budget condition is unsustainable and needs a long-term focus. So let’s have a ‘big conversation’ about our future after the election (or maybe before it…). Let’s talk about what we want State Government to do, what we want local governments to do and then let’s determine a set of priority outcomes we want to achieve and pay for. Then let’s consider the best mix of options for paying for them with everything on the table.
* Getting long-term health care costs under control. An essential to reduce the structural deficit and Governor Patrick has already fought to relieve costs on small business. But we need some game changers here. Shifting to a preventive versus reactive model of health care will take years, but let’s make public health and collective/personal responsibility for health key goals. We need to refashion health care to incentivize prevention and necessity over consumption. Everyone would need to participate – so businesses would emphasize (be obligated) to promote health and exercise for workers, food products could be better regulated, etc… A healthier Massachusetts would be a cheaper Massachusetts too.
* Getting people involved and giving back – an “It’s Our State” campaign. Governor Patrick was serious about civic renewal when he first ran. I’m sure he’s still serious about it. Given the times and mood, people maybe less trusting of Government to provide solutions but could be up for more civic involvement. But how does Government play an effective role in making that happen? Let’s try and find an answer. Massachusetts is also a place where the third sector is a major driver of the economy – think universities and hospitals. But where else can the third sector take a bigger role? Where can new social enterprises arise? Let’s find that out too.
* Economic development through more private/public/third sector partnership. This again is a Patrick strong suit but given lack of funds we need to lever in more private investment and expertise in areas like transportation and workforce development. We could part-privatise the MBTA, develop land value charges to pay for new infrastructure, hire new contractors to deliver innovative workforce development programs (paid by the results they achieve) and create apprenticeship programs funded by major employers (universities and hospitals again come to mind) and promote tourism and exports better using private contributions. We have to focus on those areas of our State with high long-term unemployment (Brink Cities), the places and people always left behind. The tax expenditure budget should be reassessed to achieve these aims.
* Devising a 20-year growth and infrastructure plan. I’d like to see the State take a more directive approach toward growth and development across Massachusetts. With limited resource, we need to direct infrastructure funds to get the most economic value. We need to plot out those places in our state where that value can be achieved. Then we need to get local buy-in to plans by creating stronger incentives. Zoning reform to favor more dense, transit-oriented development should be go further. I look at Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC as a model. Yes, NYC is a city but I think we need to start acting like a city-state to maintain our edge globally.
All of these ideas are geared at making Massachusetts a stronger and more creative State, economically and fiscally, for the long-term. We may not have all the answers but we shouldn’t be afraid of seeking them and planning for the future. Governor Patrick has already made our State stronger and made investments that will benefit us long into the future (life sciences, green economy, rebuilding roads and bridges, etc). Maybe now is not the time for new big ideas but given the challenges we face, that day will come soon. I’m sure the Governor will be ready with a few.