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Opinion | George Donnelly

Belt-tightening won’t make Mass. best

As Boston’s brightest minds focus on creating innovations that will shape the next generation, the region’s public sector compels many of them to arrive to work through relatively ancient technology and infrastructure. Imagine a scientist on the frontier of gene editing technology leaving work only to wait for a Red Line train delayed through a faulty signal system installed in the 1970s.

The contrast reflects one of the fundamental dilemmas of the Boston area economy: flourishing innovation, great potential for growth, but a lack of modern infrastructure capacity to fully handle the day-to-day needs of the economy. Government simply hasn’t kept up. And the gap between what the region needs as it expands and what the public sector is able to provide is growing.

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It’s obvious that Massachusetts must find new sources of revenue if the public sector has any hope of creating the groundwork for economic growth. But the idea is a nonstarter. Higher taxes are seen as crazy talk — an economic drain and a political death sentence. But the real lunacy would be a failure to make investments that would yield tremendous returns 10 and 20 years down the road.

Look at the contrast between our prosperous private sector and the financially pinched public sector. Even as Massachusetts’ economy last year added its most jobs in 15 years, state government tightened its belt, proposing miniscule increases in education funding. The lion’s share of new revenue in the past 10 years has gone to health care spending — a 58 percent inflation-adjusted increase, while other accounts have risen by 2 percent.

Governor Charlie Baker is focused on curbing the wayward spending habits of the Commonwealth’s bureaucracies, a sensible and long overdue pursuit that will yield a more streamlined government. But efficiencies will never free up enough money to build the durable underpinnings of a first-class 21st century economy. Massachusetts needs far-reaching infrastructure and education investments to take an already strong economy and make it the best in the world.

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Why not the world’s very best economy? We have every advantage. The state’s higher education system, pumping out tens of thousands of graduates per year, gives us a dramatic edge in brainpower. Our life sciences industry is unmatched, the startup scene is thriving, and we remain one of the world’s leading money managers.

But this economy needs a partner in government, one that completely embraces the Commonwealth’s potential. We should be a national leader in early childhood education, for there is no better way to address income inequality. We should have the best public university system in the country. We should have an upgraded, highly modern rapid transit system that connects Boston to Lowell, New Bedford, Providence, Worcester, and Springfield with high-speed (or, at least, faster) trains, to better leverage Boston’s success throughout the entire state. And we should create subsidies for the construction of middle-class housing to radically increase supply so the next generation can afford to live here.

And why don’t we? We don’t have a fully formed vision that we can be the best. The political system is trapped in a no-taxes-or-fees policy and seems almost paranoid about discussing the concept of new revenue. A Legislature that is almost 80 percent Democratic is nearly speechless on the idea. Early this year, House Speaker Robert DeLeo ruled out taxes, again, saying that the middle class is getting squeezed. And no one in the House bothered to contradict him.

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Senate President Stanley Rosenberg recently has emerged as a voice of dissent against the hold-the-line-on-revenue mentality. The governor’s budget, he said, left “gaping holes” of unmet need. Indeed, state aid for schools is budgeted for a 1.6 percent increase. Higher education received a mere 1 percent increase. This is what it means to live within our means in an era of ballooning health care costs.

It is the frustration with the short-term mentality about addressing the big picture that is helping to drive the momentum for the Millionaire’s Tax, which would add a surtax on incomes over $1 million. If the politicians won’t do it, proponents of the ballot question believe it’s time to take the case for long-term investments to the people.

In a global economy that places an ever-higher premium on intellectual capital, Massachusetts is blessed. But it shouldn’t allow sclerosis to set in and take its advantages for granted. Instead, its leaders need to make the case for how great it can be.


George Donnelly is author of “The Boston Economy: Understanding and Accessing One of the World’s Greatest Job Markets.”