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State leaders not doing the job

by Michael Lewis

[NOTE: This column appeared in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette on May 23, 2003. The author is Michael Lewis, professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. ]

In the coming weeks and months the people of Massachusetts will have to decide whether we want to live in a state characterized by the reasonable exercise of cf civic responsibility — even when we have to dig a little deeper to do so — or a state where that responsibility is recklessly abandoned.

Put more graphically, we will have to decide whether we want to live in a state where public services such as police and fire protection, education, the courts, assistance for the elderly and free public libraries will continue to be a taken-for-granted presence or, alternatively, whether we are willing to accept the literal disappearance of some of these services (e.g., free libraries and publicly funded elderly assistance programs) as well as drastic reductions in the others.

To hear the Statehouse politicians tell it, there really is no choice to be made. In the next fiscal year the commonwealth faces a revenue shortfall of some $3 billion. The denizens of Beacon Hill have told us that because the state’s constitution prohibits deficit spending, we will simply have to accept the fiscal pain implied in deep budget cuts — anywhere from 15 percent in local aid to 20 percent in higher education.

The state, they tell us, has to operate in the black, and if that means public services must suffer there is nothing to be done about it. Massachusetts’ fiscal crisis leaves no room to maneuver. We’ll just have to hunker down, they say, for however long it takes and wait things out. At some unspecified time in the future the state’s economy will get better, the revenue gap will close, state funding for public services will increase and their adequacy will be restored. Patience, they maintain, is not only a virtue; in this instance it is an absolute necessity.

But this Statehouse version of our predicament is little more than a distorted narrative calculated to absolve our elected officials of any responsibility for leading. Yes, revenues are down. The state does indeed face a budget shortfall; but only if the Legislature and the governor continue to make a virtue of passivity.

As it turns out, Massachusetts, unlike many other states whose revenue problems are proportionately far worse, has an opportunity to escape the cuts in public services casting an appalling shadow on our future. The projected revenue shortfall would all but disappear if the Legislature and governor would stop playing politics with our well-being. By agreeing to an income-tax increase of less than 1 percent, the Statehouse politicians could insure that a great deal of the $3-billion shortfall would disappear. And, by doing that they would as well rescue public services from budget cuts which threaten to make Massachusetts into something approximating a struggling Third World country.

But as of this writing the golden dome gang has adamantly refused to do anything. The House has recently voted down an effort to restore part of the 6 percent income tax rate that was gutted in the early ?s, the Senate budget contains no new taxes, and the governor has made it clear that he would veto any budget requiring even the most modest of tax increases.

The governor and the legislative leaders are, of course, correct in their assumption that, all things being equal, the electorate doesn’t like increased taxation. If you ask me do I want my taxes to go up, I would answer with a resounding “no.” But if you ask me would I accept a modest tax increase to save effective police and fire protection, quality educational programs, prescription programs for the elderly, day care programs and maximum access to free public libraries, I would answer with an equally resounding “yes.”

Our representatives in the Statehouse have steadfastly refused to ask the second question and they are thus concerned that even a small tax increase — less than 1 percent — would be political poison if they pushed for it and alternately a powerful basis for condemnation should the other guys do so. This is particularly true of Gov. Mitt Romney, Speaker Thomas M. Finneran and Senate President Robert E. Travaglini. And in a state where more than two-thirds of the Legislature run unopposed, what the leadership wants, it invariably gets.

When legislators have no electoral opposition they have little reason to be responsive to constituent concerns. And when constituent concerns are of little moment, the demands of the Legislature’s leadership increase in importance. When constituent concerns are not expressed in competitive elections, there is nothing that can serve as a counterweight to the leadership’s demands.

In the present legislative environment few house members or senators can cite the wishes of their constituents as a reason for opposing the leadership on tax increases. Failure to follow the leadership without significant electoral pressure to do so is a recipe for torpedoing your legislative career. Standing up to Finneran and Travaglini on taxes without the threat of electoral opposition as justification is likely to mean that in retaliation your own legislative agenda will be given short shift. That’s why recent efforts to lobby the legislature on behalf of threatened public service programs smack of futility. Yes, the state politicians, almost to a man or woman, have regretted the loss of state aid. But the expression of regret is not a vote. Thus if they were sympathetic they were nevertheless not willing to defy their leadership. The cost of doing so would be considerable, while the cost of ignoring constituent concerns would, given the absence of an electoral challenge, be far less so.

Well … what is to be done? Those citizens who choose civic responsibility even when that means paying slightly higher taxes should indeed continue to remonstrate with their legislators. But they need to do more if their views are to be taken seriously. It is not too early to begin organizing electoral challenges to those incumbents who fail to do everything necessary to protect public services in the commonwealth. Those incumbents who fail to lead in the struggle to increase revenues need to know — and to know as soon as possible — that they will face well-organized and vigorous opponents in the next electoral cycle.

Since the Democrats constitute an overwhelming majority in both houses of the Legislature, the most effective strategy would be to take on tax-timid incumbents in the Democratic primary. The voters of Massachusetts, even in these difficult economic times, possess the wherewithal to rescue the state’s public services. We will, however, be unable to do so unless we make those who claim they represent us accountable to us rather than to the likes of Finneran, Travaglini and Romney.

We need a statewide campaign to make Massachusetts Democrats truly democratic. If we fail to do this we will have no one except ourselves to blame when public safety deteriorates, when our schools and colleges cut programs, thus depriving our children and grandchildren, when justice is delayed and thus denied, when the free libraries close, day care becomes a luxury only the rich can afford, prescription programs for the elderly disappear and our locked state parks go to seed.

It is time for us to choose; and in choosing civic responsibility we must make it clear to the golden dome crowd that they will pay a heavy political price if they refuse to join us. It is time to contest every legislative seat in the commonwealth, delivering the following message to tax timid incumbents: On the issue of revenue enhancement, lead or step aside for those who have the courage to do so.

        – Copyright (c) 2003 Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corp.


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