FROM OUR PRINTED MAY 2021 EDITION
Six and a half years in, it is hard to spot evidence that the Baker administration has accomplished anything of lasting import for the citizens of Massachusetts.
It is a bit unfair to gauge the governor on cultural issues since they are shaped in part by broader societal forces, so I’ll focus on matters that fit squarely within his responsibilities: the finances and administration of state government.
As the secretary of administration and finance under former governors Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci, you’d think that Baker would have made great strides in getting Massachusetts’s fiscal house in order. Not so much.
Massachusetts state government finances are ranked among the worst in the country. In 2019, five years into the Baker administration, U.S. News ranked Massachusetts 43rd in the nation in financial stability.1 The Mercatus Center at George Mason University ranked the Bay State’s fiscal condition 47th among the states in 2018.2
Massachusetts did benefit from the strong national economy under President Trump. In 2014, the last year of the Patrick administration, state tax revenues were $23.3 billion. By 2020, revenues had jumped to $30.5 billion—a 31 percent increase.3 However, despite this (pre-COVID) gusher of cash, Massachusetts is more deeply in debt than when Charlie Baker took office.
According to the state’s comprehensive annual financial reports, in 2014 the commonwealth had debts totaling $80.3 billion.4 In 2020, total indebtedness had risen to $118.4 billion—an increase of 47 percent.5
The fiscal watchdog group Truth in Accounting ranks state governments by the amount of outstanding debt per capita; in 2014 Massachusetts earned a ranking near the bottom: 46th among the states. In 2019, five years into the Baker administration, Massachusetts remained in 46th place.6
Over the past six years, the governor has made no effort to address Massachusetts pension funding shortfall. State and teacher pensions account for a large portion of the state’s debt. In 2014, the pension funding and retiree healthcare shortfall was $26.1 billion. By 2020, that gap had grown to $56.8 billion despite a booming stock market.7
Mr. Baker’s efforts to control spending have been tepid at best. Massachusetts provides governors with the ability to veto specific items in the budget, but Baker stunned observers by vetoing nothing in the 2020 budget, a move that MassFiscal.org termed “a failure in our democratic process.”8
State government operations have also shown little sign of improvement during Governor Baker’s tenure. Service on the MBTA remains a daily headache for Boston-area commuters. The MBTA’s own survey data shows no improvement in customer satisfaction over the last five years.9
State government agencies under Baker have had more than their share of mishaps—multiple scandals and breakdowns at the RMV, the failed COVID website rollout, and corruption in the State Police force. The common thread among these is the Baker administration’s failure to exercise proper oversight. As Joe Battenfeld of the Herald put it with regard to the tragedy at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home: “Baker and Sudders only rush in when the crisis explodes.” 10
Real change with improvements in the public sector is hard work and requires leaders to expend substantial political capital to get results. After six and a half years there is little evidence of lasting change resulting from Charlie Baker’s time in the corner office. At least until recently, Charlie Baker has enjoyed good poll numbers, but his popularity has been achieved by following the advice of author Elbert Hubbard, who counseled “to avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” James Bohn resides in Carlisle, Mass.
1US News Financial stability ranking: https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/massachusetts
3Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Comprehensive Annual Financial Report 2020, March 25, 2021, at 25.
4Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, 2015, May 20, 2016, at 38.
5Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Comprehensive Annual Financial Report 2020, March 25, 2021, at 24.
6For the 2019 ranking and late filing date for the annual report, see https://www.truthinaccounting.org/news/detail/financial-state-of-the-states-2020. For 2014 ranking, see https://www.truthinaccounting.org/library/doclib/MA-2-pager.pdf
7Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, 2015, May 20, 2016, at 38 and Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Comprehensive Annual Financial Report 2020, March 25, 2021, at 24.