Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

How will Dems pay for their campaign promises?

Democratic candidates Jay Gonzalez and Bob Massie.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff, Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
Democratic candidates Jay Gonzalez and Bob Massie.

Listening to the two Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls talk about all they hope to do, I’ve found myself thinking: Sounds interesting — but what will it all cost and how will it be paid for? There is, after all, a pronounced propensity among politicians to lead voters down the primrose path of putatively painless public policy presents.

When this campaign began, the Democrats had an easy answer to the pay-for question: the “Fair Share” amendment, which would have amended the state constitution to impose a 4 percent surtax on incomes above $1 million — and thereby raise an additional $2 billion or so in tax revenue each year. But on June 18, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court knocked that proposed amendment off the fall ballot — and poof, the hoped-for tax-the-rich revenue bonanza was gone.

With it, the political calculus shifted significantly. The Democrats rightly point out that Republican governor Charlie Baker’s no-new-taxes stance limits his administration’s aspirations. In contrast, they each favor big spending boosts for child care and early education, K-12 education, transportation, and affordable housing, to name just some of their priorities.

Advertisement

So when the two stopped by the Globe for endorsement interviews recently, it was a chance to query both on price and pay-fors.

Get Today in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Bob Massie acknowledged that “we don’t know” how much his plans would cost. The more crucial questions, he said, were: (1) What services do voters want? (2) How would various expenditures benefit the state? (3) What are other states doing? and (4) What does it cost not to pursue his priorities?

But surely he must have some ball-park idea about cost? Not really. “It’s in the tens of billions of dollars over 10 years,” Massie said, adding: “The second I am elected, we will review these projects and find out what the total number might look like.”

As for funding, Massie says he will reintroduce a revised fair share amendment. Problem: Given the constitution-amending process, even if successful, that new revenue wouldn’t come until 2023.

From there, things got gauzier still. Massie hopes to save big money by moving to a single-payer health care system. He maintains the state could reap a big revenue bonus from promoting, and taxing, robust renewable energy production. His team says more revenue could come from building the North-South rail link — most recently estimated at a minimum of $12.3 billion — which would free up state and city property for sale and let the state save on train-operating costs.

Advertisement

Let’s be clear: As ways to fund annual budget priorities, all that is akin to watching for rainbows and then setting forth in search of the pots of gold folklore says can be found under each end.

Credit Jay Gonzalez with being somewhat more realistic. The former administration and finance secretary says that as governor, he would develop a tax plan to raise an amount “in the neighborhood of what the millionaires tax” would have. That is, around $2 billion a year.

So what would his plan look like? Gonzalez can’t (or won’t) elaborate, beyond saying he will task the Department of Revenue with developing a scheme that asks “those who are doing well to pay more and [tries] to mitigate the impact on lower and middle income people.”

Fiscal experts sounded a cautionary note, saying he might be able to insulate modest earners from the effects, but not the entire middle class.

“Good for Jay for proposing something, but if that were easy to do, we would have done it already,” said Mike Widmer, former president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. “You could raise a small amount of money and protect lower incomes and some middle-class incomes, but it becomes hugely difficult to try to have a net $2 billion increase doing it that way.”

Advertisement

Myself, I think campaigns should be about building support for specific proposals. Still, credit where it’s due: Gonzalez is at least giving a nod to reality.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.