Massachusetts used to be a hub of innovative public policies, but the state that gave America its first public school and first minimum wage seems to have lost its experimental nerve, along with its status as one of the great crucibles of transformative lawmaking.
Policy innovation is a tricky thing to measure, and there’s plenty of room for disagreement in this tale of Massachusetts’ retreat from the cutting edge. However, thanks to a team of political scientists from Notre Dame and the University of Iowa, we have new data tracking the lifecycles of 728 policies, from 17th-century laws against intermarriage to more recent efforts around newborn screening.
And when you scan that data in search of Massachusetts’ contributions, two qualities jump out.
For the better part of two centuries we were among the most prolific states, incubating policies in a variety of areas. Here are just a few of the laws that took shape in Massachusetts before spreading to at least 30 other states: a felony ban on animal cruelty (1804), the first freedom of information act (1851), a system of probation to help people right their lives without prison (1878), a retirement system for state employees (1911), and mandatory car insurance (1945).
Yet while this record of leading accomplishment has long been a source of pride for Bay Staters, the closer you get to the present, the harder it is to find comparable examples.
“I’m not sure we’re at our innovative best,” is how the former governor Michael Dukakis put it, before rattling off a litany of missed opportunities, with the state’s transportation woes front and center.
“This transportation situation is terrible, absolutely terrible, and it’s getting worse,” he said. “If we don’t get serious about a statewide passenger rail system that connects all of these gateway cities with Boston and the rest of the world we are going to choke to death.”
Whether you look at transportation or beyond, there’s only one 21st-century example of Massachusetts leading the charge for a sweeping new policy, according to the 50-state database. It was the acceptance of gay marriage in 2004, and that comes with a big asterisk: It was forced on resistant lawmakers by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court.
Taking a broad view, University of Massachusetts Lowell historian Robert Forrant didn’t mince words:
“On several significant issues — school funding, the crumbling public transportation system, health care, the opioid crisis, immigration, climate change, the re-segregation of our public schools — there is nothing that I see that is innovative and represents collaborative thinking about the problem. The Legislature and governor have mastered the fine art of appearing very, very busy while standing very, very still.”
Not everyone shares this view.
Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, pointed to another recent watershed in Massachusetts policy — namely, the push for universal health insurance under then-Governor Mitt Romney. That 2006 law didn’t make the academics’ list of innovations, because it didn’t spread to other states, but it was the model for President Obama’s health care legislation.
Stergios also suggested that federal overreach might be one reason states such as Massachusetts were struggling to innovate. “On key issues like education reform and the Affordable Care Act, the federal government got in the way and snuffed out a lot of innovative impulses.”
There do seem to be some broader changes in the way policies spread — not just in Massachusetts but around the country —
including a shift away from the try-here-copy-there pattern. Nowadays, you find more examples of groups of states jumping all at once, including the 12 that joined together in 2015 to make it easier for doctors to practice across state lines. That may be due to the rise of advocacy groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, which develops model legislation for states.
Still, some states continue to nurture influential policies — particularly California, which has set new standards for vehicle emissions, electronic waste, interstate child support, and regulating credit agencies. Going back to 1990, the researchers list California as developing or quickly adopting 37 policies that spread to other states. Massachusetts can claim 12.
How damning is this as a charge against Massachusetts politics? Maybe not at all. Strategically, there’s nothing wrong with letting other states take the lead, as we wait to see which experiments succeed and which fail. In the mid-2000s, we let our neighbors hash out the ground rules for a carbon-pricing scheme before we signed up.
And state policy isn’t the only game in town. Dan O’Brien, an assistant professor of public policy at Northeastern University, was quick to note that “cities like Boston are using data to improve basic services, like education and policing, rapidly stealing the title of ‘cradles of innovation’ from states.”
But the numbers tell a rather clear and not altogether inspiring story about the state where Louis Brandeis spent much of his life. He was the early 20th-century Supreme Court justice who popularized the idea that states could serve as “laboratories of democracy,” and increasingly it looks as if there may be something wrong with Massachusetts’ lab.
Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the nation. He can be reached at email@example.com.