Politics

Evan Horowitz | Quick Study

Massachusetts says no to spending money in 2015

Governor Charlie Baker spoke during a news conference following the Boston Olympics announcement in January.

Katherine Taylor/EPA/File

Governor Charlie Baker spoke during a news conference following the Boston Olympics announcement in January.

It could be our new governor, or maybe a long hangover from the Big Dig. Whatever the reason, Massachusetts seemed largely unwilling to spend big in 2015.

Whether it was the Boston 2024 Olympics, efforts to fix the MBTA, or plans to expand the convention center, voters and lawmakers consistently opted against using taxpayer dollars to make big investments — even if it meant spurning the promise of big long-term benefits.

The lost Olympics

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Back in January, Boston was selected as the lone US city able to bid for the 2024 Olympic Games, an opportunity the city hasn’t had since, well, ever.

But it didn’t take long for that bid to unravel. A steady stream of criticism from a group called “No Boston Olympics” drew attention to the gargantuan expense of recent Olympics, along with the implausibly sunny estimates in the current plans and the likelihood that taxpayers would be on the hook for any cost overruns.

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By the time the pro-Olympic forces struck back — with a new leadership team and a much-hyped “Bid 2.0” — public opposition had hardened, and leading lawmakers were weighing the political costs of an uphill fight.

By mid-summer, Boston had lost its grip, and Los Angeles quickly emerged as the great new hope for a 2024 US Olympics.

In the end, this may have been the best outcome for Boston, saving the city billions in construction costs — not to mention the disappointment that sets in when promises of Olympics-related economic growth come to naught, as they often do.

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But it means Boston will miss the opportunity to bask in the world’s attention, as the stage for the grand three-week experience that is the Olympic games.

The frozen T

The winter of 2015 will be remembered for two things: record snowfall and broken trains.

About the snow, there was little to do but keep shoveling and ask the feds for help (which we eventually got).

But the T needed a durable solution, so Governor Charlie Baker rapidly assembled a panel of experts who crafted a proposal for a new governance structure for the MBTA and possible rate hikes.

One thing the panel didn’t recommend was additional public money. Whatever else the T might require, there was apparently no appetite for an infusion of public dollars to meet the operating needs of the system and improve service.

Again, this may well be the right approach: First, whip the MBTA into shape and make sure existing funds are being used as efficiently as possible; then, determine if more money is really needed.

But this is not the only arguable approach. The idea that a major public investment in regional transit could have huge, positive spillover benefits barely broke the frozen surface of this debate.

Other abandoned projects from 2015

Efforts to expand the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center were in full swing when Baker took office. The necessary bonds had been approved by the Legislature, and future events were already being booked. But a few months into his tenure, the governor decided to put the $1 billion project on hold, where it has stayed.

Other spending proposals didn’t get even that far.

During the 2014 campaign, Baker released an economic development plan designed to boost the state economy, at a cost of hundreds of millions of public dollars each year.

Since taking office, however, he has left most of these far-reaching proposals in the campaign files — including the tax break for businesses with minimum-wage workers and the tax exemption for businesses with profits under $500,000.

Prospects for big investments in 2016

Come January, the governor will have his second shot at crafting a state budget that reflects his top priorities. Then the Legislature will get to push back with its own vision of Massachusetts’ long-term needs.

Either of these could include bold, expensive proposals. But the only way to pay for them is to cut deeply into existing programs or to raise taxes. There aren’t any piles of unused money lying around. In fact, the state is likely to start the year with a substantial deficit.

And yet, sometimes it is the big investments — say in infrastructure, or education — that help ensure that a state’s economy is poised to grow over the long term.

As a gauge of the state’s spending posture, the uncertain fate of the Green Line extension into Somerville may bear watching.

Lax oversight and a poorly designed contract have allowed the cost of that long-deferred project to rise by $1 billion. But there’s a long list of reasons to push forward, despite the increased costs. For one thing, Massachusetts is getting a big chunk of federal money. Plus, there are lots of potential riders, a relatively straightforward above-ground footprint, and — perhaps most important— a legal requirement that the state complete either this project, or another one in the same area with the same environmental impact.

In the words of the Conservation Law Foundation’s transportation expert Rafael Mares: “if we can’t do this project there’s no other project we can do.”

But that doesn’t change the fact that the project will cost a substantial amount of money. And between the lost Olympics, the frozen T, and the abandoned convention center, 2015 showed how reluctant Massachusetts is to pay for big investments.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the nation. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz
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