Legislative budget negotiations are fraught under the best of circumstances. But lawmakers on Beacon Hill have a tougher time than most, because many of them lack a source of reliable projections on the future costs of the bills they are voting on. Will a seemingly innocuous tax credit or pension bill cost taxpayers millions of dollars? It’s not always easy to say.
According to a report by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 44 states have some sort of agency devoted to analyzing the financial costs and benefits of proposed legislation. Massachusetts isn’t one of them. Instead, legislators here must rely on cost projections from an ad-hoc collection of legislative aides, budget experts in the governor’s office, and outside advocacy groups such as the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. The drawbacks of this sort of system are obvious. Knowledgeable staffers may lose their platform when their bosses are voted out of office. Also, there is no guarantee that the advice being given isn’t tainted by political concerns. It’s far better to have a reliable office tabulating the costs of all significant pieces of legislation.
The solution is for Massachusetts to establish a nonpartisan legislative fiscal office, staffed with professional financial experts. Such an office would also make it easier for the public to access information on budget items. But the most immediate beneficiaries would be legislators themselves. They’ll be able to vote more confidently on bills when they can see the pricetag.