As a believer in the ability of government to improve people’s lives, Deval Patrick didn’t run for the state’s top job to preside over a long period of budget austerity. That role was thrust upon him, not just by a global economic crisis but also by the debilitating debts run up by the Big Dig political culture that he decried during his first campaign. During his State of the State address Wednesday night, though, the earlier, more expansive version of Patrick re-emerged — with a far-reaching transportation, education, and tax proposal. After six difficult years, during which Massachusetts made some key reforms and outperformed the national economy, it’s time to have a discussion about a long-term plan.
As matters stand, payments for Big Dig-related debts and maintenance costs for existing roads, rails, and bridges far exceed the money available. Patrick proposes to address that problem — and then some; he also described the outlines of a package of transportation improvements across the state that range from later weekend hours for the MBTA to the long-delayed South Coast rail to train service between the Berkshires and New York.
Beyond that, Patrick also proposed significant new initiatives in education, from more aid for college tuition to expanding preschool to extended days for middle schoolers in the state’s troubled former mill towns. Patrick would pay for these initiatives by raising the income tax to 6.25 percent, a 1 percentage point hike, while cutting the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 4.5 percent.
Patrick makes a good case that the state will reap tangible economic gains. “To prepare for the future,” Patrick declared in his speech, “we invest in ourselves.” The highest-performing public education system in the country has been one of the state’s key competitive assets.
In transportation, where the Bay State is hardly a national leader, the needs are starkly visible. The inability of outlying regions of the state to share in Greater Boston’s prosperity limits their potential. Meanwhile, no one can ride the fast, efficient subways in Asian cities, or even the late-night trains in New York, and think that the MBTA in its current form is sufficient to keep eastern Massachusetts competitive with urban regions around the world. Yet the unwillingness of past governors and Legislatures to deal honestly with the Big Dig’s multi-billion-dollar debt hangover has crowded out the state’s ability to move people around in the future. The Central Artery and Tunnel can’t be the last significant transportation improvement the state ever makes.
Yet there is a legitimate debate to be had over whether this is the right time for a major tax hike. All workers are coping with the end of the two-year, 2 percent “holiday” in the federal payroll tax, and those with very high incomes are facing the end of the Bush income-tax cuts. Adding another 1 percent for the state is a significant pinch, even if it’s offset by significantly lower sales tax and a more generous deduction for families, as Patrick proposes.
The governor has to be ready to address taxpayers’ skepticism. They will need hard evidence that the profligacy of the Big Dig era is over, that state agencies are demonstrably doing their jobs well, and that new revenues for transportation and education will be devoted to achievable goals in only those areas. Patrick’s broad call to raise spending on public education doesn’t speak to any particular result; but his specific goal of making sure all third-graders can read is the kind of initiative that can be measured.
The leaner budgets of the last several years have been, in many ways, good for Massachusetts. Without them, lawmakers might never have reformed overly generous pension and benefit rules for state and municipal employees. But a lack of investment in key functions of government imposes costs of its own. Patrick deserves credit for setting bigger goals for the state, and putting a plan before the public.