My post-vacation round-up last week elicited several comments, a couple of which took issue with my characterization of Governor Patrick's return to his 'blah-blah-blah comfort zone.' One, posted by a fellow I know, chided me for "complaining" without offering constructive suggestions. Describing one of Governor Patrick's recent 'budget road-show' appearances, in Franklin, he wrote:
[Patrick] was there to describe and discuss the cuts the state budget faces -and the real impact that they were going to have on people dependent on state service. There was nothing comfortable about that appearance. But it involved the actual work of governing. There were people there who wanted to push back against the cuts to programs they relied upon. The Governor's respectful reply was -fine, then please tell me where you think we should cut instead -or where you think we can find the revenue to fund your program.I was not at the Franklin road-show, but I have heard Patrick deliver this shtick before. To my commenter, Patrick's attempt to foist the tough decisions onto his citizen audience represents "the actual work of governing." To me, it's a cop-out - and one that comes straight out of the politicians' handbook, under the caption "turning the tables on a hostile questioner."
Governor Patrick and the Democrat-dominated legislature have not failed to get the state budget under control for lack of plausible options. Patrick does not need the engaged citizens who attend his town hall forums to serve as his budgetary brain trust - he has one of those. I know some of his team; they are very smart people. They understand the state budget (which runs into the thousands of pages) in minute detail. It is their job to pass that understanding to the Governor. Making sure that the budget he proposes is realistic in light of anticipated revenues is not only a big part of the job he was elected to do, in Massachusetts it is his legal obligation. Passing the buck to a citizen questioning specific budget line items is just a dodge.
Patrick has failed to get the budget under control because for all his brow-furrowed talk of tough decisions and deep cuts, he has refused to make tough decisions, and has repeatedly faked his way through supposed cuts. A few examples:
- The budget Governor Patrick submitted at the beginning of this year, already deep into the economic downturn, increased state spending over last year. He reduced the growth rate as compared to the previous annual cycle, and pronounced that a "cut." That says all anyone needs to know about his notion of fiscal responsibility. Pause and think about that. Faced with a state budget already deep in the red, with no remotely realistic prospect that state revenues would increase this year over last year, the Governor submitted a budget proposal that increased state spending. Primarily for that reason, the Governor's budget was a dead letter from the moment of filing. Next week, for the first time in the Commonwealth's history, Patrick will submit a revised budget plan. Not a bill, mind you - and not anything that the legislature will pay any mind to whatsoever. Patrick will do this so that he can begin the work of erasing his prior, utterly unrealistic proposal from political memory.
- Despite frequent reference to state level job cuts, specifically in the executive branch, the state workforce is still significantly larger than at the end of the Romney Administration. Patrick's own staff includes multiple additional positions - and these people are paid salaries that exceed those paid to Romney's staff in many cases by tens of thousands of dollars. A timely email from the invaluable Pioneer Institute puts some meat on these bones:
Since 2004, state government has increased unsustainably. Using data from the same period in each year to control for seasonal employees at environmental and higher education agencies, the Commonwealth's workforce increased by almost 10% — 7,500 additional employees — between 2004 and 2008. The state's workforce now totals 83,636 employees. Of the new hires, only 1,100 were in Health and Human Services, which we take as a proxy for ’safety net’ programs.
The Administration has pledged to cut state employment by 750 employees; however, it is not yet clear if this will be achieved through layoffs, attrition, or hiring freezes. Attrition is an ongoing process that will not achieve incremental savings alone. Similarly, a hiring freeze only holds open an already unfilled position; again, it achieves little in the way of savings. We believe cutting employment levels back to where they were in 2004, with the exception of the 1,100 safety net employees cited above, will allow the state to maintain core services while still reining in costs. At an average salary of more than $53,000, eliminating 6,400 workers from state payrolls would result in savings of $342 million. This does not include any savings achieved from benefits.
- After months of making political hay over supposed cuts to the bloated Pike workforce, specifically to the ranks of the long since technologically-superseded toll takers, Patrick caved almost instantly to the tolltakers' union following their Easter Sunday sick-out and the resulting uproar over the resulting hours-long traffic jams. The workforce reductions have been canceled.
Instead of again engaging in the fruitless exercise of picking and choosing cuts among literally thousands of line items, each with its own champions, beneficiaries and legislative advocates, the Governor should propose and then push an across the board spending cut calculated to bring spending in line with anticipated revenues. Of course some significant portions of the budget are not discretionary (or should not be, anyhow - if you missed it, catch this must-read by Peter Stergios in yesterday's Globe, on Governor Patrick's improper and possibly unconstitutional attempt to circumvent the state's legal obligation to fund public education by back-filling with one-time federal 'stimulus' dollars). But an across-the-board, apolitical cut to the remainder of the budget would go a long way to finally arresting the Commonwealth's unsustainable spending.
Nobody should suggest that Governor Patrick's job these days is either fun or easy. His options are ugly; but he and the Legislature have options. Unfortunately, the 'option' they inevitably choose is to turn yet again to the taxpayers, who have to balance their own budgets and do not have the luxury of passing responsibility for doing so to someone else.