While lawmakers meet behind closed doors to finalize the coming year’s state budget — and confront a set of problems compounding in an existential crisis — a few basic facts should be considered.
It took our state 220 years, from the first governorship of John Hancock to the Y2K computer turnover, to reach a budget totaling $20 billion.
In just the past 20 years, though, that figure has doubled, to more than $42 billion.
During that same span, the state population has increased just 8.7 percent.
All told, we’re now spending over 100 percent more money to service fewer than 10 percent more people.
Massachusetts doesn’t have a revenue problem. It has a spending problem, affected by inflation and rising — in some cases, skyrocketing — costs, of course, but also its budget decisions.
The Commonwealth has lived up to its name by providing a strong social safety net. It’s spent more in recent decades to boost its public schools, launch the health insurance program that became the model for Obamacare, and support newcomers and the less fortunate with food, housing, and education assistance programs.
At the same time, the state has been plagued by public-sector mismanagement: excessive salaries for government workers, especially in the higher-ed and public safety arenas; lavish pension programs perpetuating that pay for decades of retirement; and questionable oversight of things as basic as the quality of concrete used in the Big Dig.
Massachusetts now finds itself confronted with that unenviable budget math, as the State House News Service recently reported. About half of its spending is consumed by three areas: MassHealth, the health care program serving seniors, children, and low-income residents that consumes over $16 billion alone; public-employee pensions; and payments on its existing debt.
All the other services provided by the state must come from the remaining pie.
The numbers underscore the challenge of defeating the three-headed monster now confronting us.
• Housing costs statewide have become astronomical, with $4,400 monthly rents in Boston’s Seaport and record prices elsewhere.
• Workers living in the suburbs can’t drive into the city efficiently because of clogged highways and a backlog of maintenance to key connectors such as the Tobin Bridge.
How can Boston, the capital and economic engine of Massachusetts, continue to function if people priced out of the city can’t get there from elsewhere?
A conundrum has turned into a crisis.
Housing is a challenge because every owner has the inherent right to get as much for their property as possible. But the city and state have leverage through their permitting powers to force developers into providing more affordable units than already required.
Health care is a vital job sector for Massachusetts, but its leaders need to be convinced to control costs so that runaway problem can be reined in. Governor Baker was once one of them and can speak their language.
Roads, bridges, and the T suffer from decades of neglect and underfunding, but just drive across the New Hampshire border and you’ll find highways without potholes, medians that are mowed, and breakdown lanes free of trash. Those fundamentals are not beyond the Bay State’s capacity.
And if you want to see what really can be, go to Logan Airport and get on Cathay Pacific’s 15-hour nonstop flight to Hong Kong. When you land, you’ll board an automated train connecting the airport to Kowloon in 24 minutes.
You can then fly on, as my wife and I did in March, to Beijing and tour a city with over 30 times more people than Boston that still moves its masses with a dated-but-functional subway system. And connects them to the rest of the country with new 200 mile-per-hour trains.
The reflex from our political leaders can’t be MBTA fare hikes like the one set to take place on Monday, desperately needed as the money may be.
The first move shouldn’t be tax hikes to pay for new education spending, as some lawmakers latched on to after a recent Suffolk University poll.
Instead, government leaders at all levels — local, state, and federal — need to think fresh about how they can provide core services underpinning the fundamentals of our economy. The $50 million emergency MBTA transfer the governor announced Tuesday is a start; his five-year, $8 billion influx announced last August is a painfully slower help, aimed at completing repairs and upgrades by 2032.
People need to be able to afford a home, commute to work, and get to school, the grocery store, and a doctor as efficiently as possible. Additional services can be provided, improved, or expanded from there.
And the public would probably be more inclined to support a tax increase when the top-paid state employee list isn’t filled with workers making five to 10 times the average citizen.
The senators and representatives behind those closed doors on Beacon Hill, as well as the governor in the State House corner office, have double the money available just 20 years ago.
Boston, its suburbs, and the rest of Massachusetts would benefit if they had the wisdom and political courage to focus first on half the problems.
Glen Johnson is a former Globe political reporter who covered the State House for eight years. His new book about diplomacy, “Window Seat on the World,” will be published July 9.