Obese and unbalanced, the Massachusetts state budget is a disgrace. Mitt Romney ran for governor on a platform of dramatically cutting it down to size, and the urgency of doing so is even more apparent now than it was during the campaign.
The incoming governor's new budget chief has been through these straits before. As assistant secretary of administration and finance in the early Weld years, Eric Kriss knows from personal experience that it really is possible for state budgets to go down. It happened in fiscal year 1992, when the Commonwealth's outlays were 1.7 percent less than they had been the year before. And though many had predicted otherwise, civilization as we know it did not sputter to a halt.
Nor will it do so in fiscal 2004 if Romney makes good on his vow to carve $1 billion or more out of the $23 billion that Massachusetts government now lavishes on itself each year. Unencumbered by his predecessors' baggage, untainted by the Legislature's dishonest budgeting, Romney has the freedom to propose "unthinkable" spending reductions and changes to existing law. The new governor has a mandate to throw open the State House windows and let the breezes of fresh thinking blow away the dust and cobwebs. Herewith a few suggestions:
— Dismantle what is left of the anachronistic Metropolitan District Commission and parcel out its functions among existing agencies with which it overlaps: beaches and nature reserves to the state Department of Environment Management, roadways to the Highway Department or to local communities, reservoirs to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority and parks and playgrounds to the cities and towns in which they are located.
— Repeal the Draconian Pacheco Law, which makes it all but impossible for private firms to compete with state employees on contracts to deliver public services. Since the law was enacted in 1993, it has cost Massachusetts hundreds of millions dollars in forgone savings.
— Abolish the boards of registration within the Division of Professional Licensure that serve no significant function — those that purport to regulate a slew of occupations from barbers to dietitians to radio/TV technicians. Nobody likes a bad haircut or an ineptly repaired radio, but not every problem requires a government solution.
— Reduce the 85 to 90 percent subsidy the state pays for public employees' and retirees' health insurance. The average private-sector worker absorbs more than 30 percent of his health insurance premium. Government workers can, too.
— Auction off the state's numerous public skating rinks and golf courses. Ice skating and golf are not essential human needs, and there is no reason for state agencies to run recreational facilities that can be privately owned and operated.
— Consolidate the sprawling public higher education network. With more than 30 university, state-college, and community college campuses, the system has become a bloated monument to the power of the edifice complex. Underused schools should be closed or merged into stronger institutions; some of the money saved could be used to improve those remaining or to supply financial aid that students could spend at any Massachusetts college that offers them admission.
— End the only-in-Massachusetts craziness of requiring paid off-duty police to direct traffic at construction and utility work sites, a law that drains as much as $10 million from the state treasury annually. If 49 other states can make do with civilian flagmen instead of police details, so can Massachusetts.
— Sell the Boston convention centers — not just the Hynes facility on Boylston Street but the new convention center going up in South Boston. Neither facility will ever turn a profit; both will ultimately cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions in wasted dollars. If Boston's hotel and restaurant owners regard one or both convention centers as good for business, they can buy and run them with their own funds. Pressure the House and Senate into repealing the unjustified bonuses each legislator is paid: the "office expense" accounts, which are nothing but $7,200-per-member slush funds, and the outrageous travel per-diems, which pay legislators an average of $4,200 a year simply for driving to work — all on top of their substantial salaries. Equally outrageous is the bogus "leadership" pay that enriches one of every four legislators by up to $15,000 annually. In the context of a $23 billion budget, the amount saved might be small. But the message a repeal would send — a message of integrity and responsibility — would be forceful and welcome.
No matter how many terms he serves as governor, Romney's power to effect lasting change in the Bay State's finances will never be greater than over the next six months. As he takes office Thursday, the 71st governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts faces a wide-open door of opportunity. Here's hoping he makes the most of it.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is email@example.com. New York Times News Service