With an ostensible liberal Democratic-controlled General Court, MA remains traditionally fiscally conservative. That’s fertile ground for GOP Gov. Charlie Baker to plant his no-new taxes seeds. Thus, most of his first budget proposal likely didn’t surprise BMG sorts.
And yet, let us consider what he didn’t say.
[I'll tuck my 27-minute Left Ahead ramble on the budget at the bottom...for your consideration, if you have indulgence in your heart and perhaps a pint in hand.]
Sure, it’s largely level funded. Most line items on page after page of his proposal are identical to last fiscal year’s dollar amounts. Yet unstated is that doing this is really an inflation-reduction per department and function, maybe 3% or more in reduced funds and effectively frozen human and physical resources.
Most obviously, at Baker’s press conference announcing his proposed budget, he iterated and reiterated inherited to the point of a drinking game card. There was no sympathy much less empathy for previous Gov. Deval Patrick who balanced 8 years of budgets with various shortfalls and nasty surprises. Instead it was, “Woe is me having to correct the blunders and incompetence of a profligate predecessor.” It was $700 million plus, then $1.5 or $1.8 billion deficit. “Let us thank the fiscal gods that a responsible adult is finally in charge here.”
I find that the biggest takeaway from his proposal and press conference. Charlie Baker has always been a canny self-promoter, savvy in both politics and PR. Here he is setting up first a terrible situation so that even small accomplishments seem grand.
Longer term, Baker seems setting himself up as a savior, a fixer, a turn-around manager. He has plenty of ego and vanity. He doesn’t need to do this setup for his internals. Instead, I figure he is already aiming at a VP or even Prez shot it 2020 or 2024. Like Mitt Romney trying to ride his two horses of Olympics success and Red guy winning in a Blue state, Baker seems ready to rescue us, even if that’s really just doing the balanced-budget legal mandate.
Otherwise, as noted in other BMG posts, like this one, there’s likely trouble coming from mass-transit haters in the legislature. Baker’s proposal does include a nod to MBTA funding with grant increases. However, he doesn’t even try to correct the huge blunders in dumping Big Dig debt on the MBTA and then demanding forward-funding based on a failed fantasy of never-ending growth spiral of sales-tax revenue.
We need leadership to admit the problem, then propose real fixes. I can’t see that coming from either house on Beacon Hill. Baker promises findings from a task force to report by the end of the month. I don’t anticipate keen insight from that and we’d still need a champion in Baker.
Otherwise, this is a very cautious budget proposal. Sure, Baker’s magic wand of cost savings from muscled retirements and trying to kick Medicaid and other health program beneficiaries off the rolls are questionable. It may be the commonwealth pressures those who “re-determine” eligibility take the hardest line possible to accomplish that. TBD.
Overall, the legislature is likely to be pretty positive. This budget proposal gives them freedom to avoid many big problems. It doesn’t allow for traditional per-district pork, although such earmarks manage to wiggle through. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t demand that they tackle the hardest problems.
At its core, this budget proposal does not show a leader with big ideas and a keen vision.