When I read recently that Michael Widmer would be retiring as president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a number floated into my head: 720-1000. Like many journalists, politicians, and policy wonks, I have Widmer’s phone number etched onto the speed-dial of my brain. Over the past 20-plus years, few people have dispensed as much clarity and common sense on complicated fiscal issues, and few organizations have commanded as much respect as both taxpayer advocate and civic glue.
I’ll admit I’ve especially loved writing “the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation” when the group supported liberal policies such as in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants or an inflation-indexed rise in the gasoline tax. But the genius of the Taxpayers Foundation is its broad, un-reflexive view of the state’s competitiveness: fiscal health and rational taxes, yes, but also investments in education, health care, and the quality of life. “Our mission is not ideological,” Widmer said in an interview earlier this week. “We believe in what’s the best use of the taxpayer dollar and the long-term interest of the Massachusetts economy.” Taxes may be in the organization’s middle name, but they don’t define everything that builds a state’s economy.
A good example is the campaign Widmer has been waging (though hardly alone) to rein in spending by the state’s municipalities on pension and health benefits for their retirees. Earlier this week the Patrick administration announced that localities and school districts have saved $247 million by taking advantage of a 2011 law that allows communities to make certain changes to health care benefits without going through collective bargaining. For Widmer the win is not just for a town’s bottom line. “I see that as preserving teachers in the classroom and good benefits for public employees,” he said. The money saved could cut taxes, sure, but it could also be plowed back into hiring more police, firefighters, and teachers. “It actually preserves public sector jobs,” he said.
As a fiscal watchdog, Widmer is happiest when Massachusetts ranks near the middle of personal and corporate tax burdens: not too high, not too low. This balanced approach reflects what he calls “a culture of moderation” in the state’s business community. There are exceptions, but overall the state’s major business groups — the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts — are far more moderate than their national counterparts. Widmer thinks this has contributed to the state’s political culture functioning reasonably well, especially compared to Washington. “There is no shortage of clashes, but we don’t have political breakdown,” he said.
Widmer got his start in politics in Republican governor Frank Sargent’s administration and considers himself an acolyte of John F. Kennedy’s call to public service. He believes in government; he just wants to see it work right. Under Widmer, the Taxpayers Foundation has championed spending billions on public education through the 1993 education reform law (which also brought high-stakes testing to Massachusetts), supported counting education and training toward the work requirement under welfare reform, and was a key player in passing the state’s 2006 universal health care law.
Still, Widmer is no free-spending liberal. He issues warning against Beacon Hill’s tendency to dip into the rainy day reserve fund, and he is skeptical of capital megaprojects that create jobs but dig the state into debt. And though he thinks income inequality is a serious problem, he doesn’t think higher taxes on the rich is the answer. “You would squelch investment if you taxed the high end,” he said.
Noah Berger, who directs the non-partisan (but decidedly leftish) Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, has sparred with Widmer more than a few times, especially regarding Berger’s greater appetite for new taxes. But he says Widmer “consistently steers our public debates away from divisiveness and toward a spirit of working together toward a positive vision of the common good.” Let’s hope he isn’t the last of a breed.
In October, just weeks after his 75th birthday, Widmer and his daughter swam 1.5 miles across San Francisco Bay in strong currents on the famous “escape from Alcatraz” route. There’s an irresistible metaphor in there about bucking the tide. But knowing Widmer’s steady, careful leadership regarding the state’s economy, I’m inclined to say his more important legacy is the ability to go the distance.