Baker’s Dozen – Food for thought in the gubernatorial campaign, part 1

Political campaigns in a media age too often amount to little more than sound bites, manipulation of symbols and repetitive slogans. Substantive discussion of issues? Fuhggeddabout it! Everyone’s in favor of “eliminating the waste,” “cutting the fat but not the bone,” and “making government more efficient.” Specifics of where and how much are usually lacking.

Deval Patrick’s record since becoming Governor is fair game. And voters deserve a thoughtful debate on the issues. Charlie Baker took a good first step in announcing his “Bakers’ dozen” – 13 – proposals that provide a terrific vehicle for discussing what’s wrong with the Commonwealth and what should be done about it.

With Governor Patrick-led major reforms in education, pensions, transportation, ethics, automobile insurance, and police details plus his implementation of the first-in-the-nation health law, all while having to cut $9 billion from the state budget so far, it’s hard to accept Baker’s assertion that “The mentality here on Beacon Hill is tax and spend first, reform last.” Patrick’s record is not unassailable, but he has actually done quite a lot—more than many other administrations–though he’s only recently begun to tout the achievements.

Nevertheless, who wouldn’t want to save a cool billion more, if it could be done wisely? So, let’s look at how the “Baker’s Dozen” proposes to do so.

1. Public construction projects should be open to all bidders. End project labor agreements (PLA’s) that exclude 80 percent of the market from bidding on projects. Projected savings of up to $100 million. This seems to be a no brainer. Would someone explain to me why this proposal doesn’t make sense? Note: The Governor has already ticked off the unions with his reform of police details. Why not look at the PLA’s?

2. Lower health care costs for cities and towns for another $100 million by allowing local governments to get coverage through the Group Insurance Commission, which is how it’s done with state employees. Patrick took the first step in permitting local unions to join the state health plan. However, it requires the approval of 70 percent of local workers’ unions. No wonder just 19 of the state’s 351 communities have been able to take advantage of this cost savings. Why not eliminate the 70% requirement and bring city and town workers’ coverage in line with what the rest of us are struggling with? Unfortunately, legislators are afraid of touching the issue. Baker’s point is a good one, but would he have any more luck with a heavily Democratic legislature?

3. Implement real pension reform for $50M in savings. After years of talk and no action by others on Beacon Hill, Patrick has taken important first steps toward pension reform and it is not fair to claim he has done nothing. But more can be done. Baker gets pretty specific about how he’d further reform state workers’ pensions, and his specifics do make sense. The question is: how much further are the Governor and the public willing to go? This is a good area for thoughtful debate. I want to know more.

4. End union control of public contracts – between $75M to $100M in savings – by ending the Pacheco Law. Certainly some modification of the law should be up for discussion so that private contractors could at least compete more easily for contracts to provide certain government services. Public workers would have to be able to compete as well, but maybe the taxpayers would get a better deal if there were such competition. (See Scot Lehigh’s analysis in today’s Globe.) Baker calls for providing “more flexibility in making determinations.” And why not? Baker suggests areas in which this might work, including highway maintenance, IT infrastructure, vehicle fleet management, Medicaid billing, toll collections, park and building management, and more. While it’s not clear whether meaningful savings can be achieved, shouldn’t each area be reviewed and the tradeoffs publicly discussed?

5. Consolidate and shrink state government – Baker claims at least $400M in savings. Here the Governor fights back that there are holes in Baker’s analysis. Maybe so. But we need details from both sides. Shouldn’t we at least have a discussion of how specifically the challenger would implement his proposals and to what extent the incumbent sees merit in proceeding on any of them now? Unlike other challengers, Baker comes to the race with an insider’s understanding of the executive branch. So please tell us how a Baker Administration would deal with the frustrating political realities of making changes – e.g., the buzz saw that Patrick ran into when trying to consolidate economic development agencies. And, most importantly, just how would Baker, a former Human Services secretary, make administrative cuts without hurting the state’s most vulnerable recipients of state services?

Baker specifically recommends consolidation of health and human services, which eat up half the state budget. But just how would consolidation work? Could it be made better for non-profit providers, making it easier for them to deal with state bureaucracy? But what about the client population? Would consolidation just make it easier to cut necessary services that the homeless, or the disabled, need to survive? Could the so-called reform proposals by intent or unintended consequence be a veiled plan to do to human services what capitation did to health coverage in the ‘90’s? [Disclosure: one of my clients is a human services provider committed to maintaining quality care in tough economic times.]

All of Baker’s 13 recommendations involve tradeoffs, which should be debated widely and deeply over the coming months. I’ll continue my take on these when I complete my review of the Baker’s Dozen in tomorrow’s blog.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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