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OPINION

Baker’s hunt for the wily gooney bird

The governor’s idea of raising revenue is a mix of the good, the bad, and the what-the-hell-is-he-thinking.

Sam Doran

There’s an oft told tale of the early days of the William Weld administration, when the wunderkinder who made up the governor’s inner circle (most of them former prosecutors) were huddled, putting together their first state budget.

Revenue had to equal spending — a simple enough concept, but not so simple in the actual doing. They added up the revenue numbers one more time — still $100 million short. The hour was late, a time when wacky ideas begin to sound almost sensible. Hey, how about selling off state land, one suggested. Sure, why not. And the entirely fictional proceeds? Well, how about $100 million?

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It was hardly the first time a governor had added a fudge factor — or two or three — to justify whatever level of spending he wanted, and Governor Charlie Baker has just proved it certainly wasn’t the last.

Baker, of course, was an undersecretary of Health and Human Services during those early Weld years, and therefore has plausible deniability on the land-sale scam. But this year, with revenue still problematic, Baker has dragged out his own oldies but goodies on the revenue wish list — a combination of the good, the bad, and the what-the-hell-is-he-thinking.

The governor, of course, patted himself on the back for not raising any broad-based taxes.

“We don’t believe raising taxes on residents of the Commonwealth, especially in the midst of all the things that are going on, is the right thing to do,” he said at his budget-reveal news conference.

Fine, but what about raising them on hospitals that already suffered revenue losses when they shut down elective surgeries to deal with surges of COVID-19 patients?

According to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, Baker’s budget includes a $100 million increase in Health Safety Net Hospital Assessments ($75 million of it due this fiscal year). The money would not be directed into the program that reimburses hospitals that treat large numbers of uninsured or underinsured patients, but into the state’s general fund. After fiscal 2022, the fee hike would be cut to $42.5 million and go back into hospital payments. The whole scheme would need federal approval.

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Also on the dubious list is the $5 million he proposes to extract from opioid manufacturers in a special tax on their product. Opioid manufacturers may remain everyone’s favorite bad guys, but for two consecutive years legislators have given this one a good leaving-alone. Perhaps Baker thinks the third time’s a charm.

He’s also counting on $35 million from sports betting, which has now become part of the boilerplate of Baker budgets and has yet to be approved by the Legislature.

And the governor wants to allow people to use their debit cards to make Lottery purchases, normally a cash transaction — something that his budget anticipates will take an additional $30 million directly out of their bank accounts. What a swell way to use those enhanced unemployment checks.

Baker also wants to tax drug companies (at a time when many raced to produce COVID-19 vaccines) if their products exceed price “benchmarks.” The governor’s budget puts the figure at $70 million — which would represent a boatload of overpriced drugs.

This, too, has been advanced by Baker before and ignored by the Legislature. This time, as a sweetener, Baker has proposed dedicating $47.5 million to community hospitals, a favorite cause of House Speaker Ron Mariano. Anything over that would go into the general fund.

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Pandering to lawmakers? Our Charlie?

But sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart. And the Baker team just got lucky.

Actual help is on the way — an estimated $500 million in additional Medicaid reimbursements, authorized when the Biden administration extended the COVID-19 public health emergency, according to the Taxpayers Foundation.

It’s eerily reminiscent of that first Weld budget and the timely arrival of a similar “gift” from Washington — also in the form of an unanticipated Medicaid reimbursement of some $500 million that bailed the state out of a looming deficit. The ever colorful Weld called it the “gooney bird,” — a piece of good fortune that fell from the sky.

Baker’s gooney bird has just landed.


Rachelle G. Cohen is a Globe opinion writer. She can be reached at rachelle.cohen@globe.com.