In his January 1991 inaugural address, Governor William Weld put the Massachusetts political establishment on notice that he was about to sweep the old order away. He defined his mandate precisely and clearly: “Last fall the people of Massachusetts voted to disenthrall themselves from the failed dogmas of big government.” And so, said the new governor, the public sector was going to shrink. He promised a leaner, more “entrepreneurial” state, one tending “to steer rather than row,” one that “understands that sometimes the most helpful thing to do is to get out of the way. . . . Fewer rules and more results—that’s my definition of entrepreneurial government.” His newborn administration would set about “reinventing the way state government functions,” dismantling “bureaucracies 50 years out of date, sluggish and centralized, in which hierarchies rule and orders are issued from the top of a power pyramid.”
It was revolution Weld was talking, especially for famously liberal Massachusetts, a state that had been governed by Michael Dukakis for 12 of the past 16 years and by a Democratic legislature since the late 1950s. Yet the new governor’s radical remarks only underscored the promises he had made throughout his 1990 campaign. He had launched his candidacy one year earlier with a vow to end “big government,” to slash the state payroll by 10,000, and to cut $1 billion out of the state budget (which then stood at $12.8 billion and would rise, by Election Day, to $13.4 billion). “This state government has taken on a life of its own,” he declared. “[It] has forgotten the simple truth that there’s no such thing as government money; there’s only taxpayers’ money.”
Over and over, he repeated these themes. Referring to the $6 billion by which the state budget had grown under Dukakis, Weld said, “I would be very, very surprised if there was 16 percent of that $6 billion that couldn’t be pried away.” Had state spending merely kept pace with inflation since 1983, he calculated, it would have been 25 percent less than it was at the end of Dukakis’s term.
To emphasize his determination to reduce spending drastically, Weld endorsed Question 3, a ballot initiative (ultimately unsuccessful) to roll back more than $2 billion in recent tax increases. Budgets, he declared in May 1990, ought to start each year “from scratch. . . . You assume no program is necessary . . . no bureaucrat's job is necessary . . . no line item in the budget is necessary.” He cheerfully told editorial boards he would “blow up” unneeded state agencies and cited robust privatization as the key to shrinking “the beast”—his term for state government. “If the private sector can run something better and cheaper, and it isn’t a core function of government, I say: More power to them.”
He was scathing in his indictment of the Democrats who ran the State Senate and House of Representatives. “The Legislature,” he said, “has proven itself incapable of restructuring state government.” By contrast, he was an outsider who would remain an outsider: “I particularly despise the philosophy . . . that you have to go along to get along.” He also despised William Bulger, the vindictive, arm-twisting Senate president. Beacon Hill was “rotten to the core,” snapped Weld, a former federal prosecutor, and much of the rot was due to Bulger. In an October debate with his Democratic opponent, Boston University president John Silber, Weld snorted: “I think you’ve been hanging around your friend Senator Bulger too long, absorbing the 1,001 reasons why it’s impossible to change anything on Beacon Hill.”
So how has the Weld revolution turned out? Did the first Republican to be elected governor of Massachusetts since 1970 make good on his vow to reduce state government radically?
Not according to one high state official, who in August 1995—more than four and a half years after Weld took office—portrayed a state still mired in government, taxes, and regulation. Far from shrinking, the state's tax revenues and budget had climbed every year since 1992. The official characterized Massachusetts in Year 5 of the Weld administration much as the governor himself had five years earlier: “A bunch of boards . . . regulate barbers and cosmetologists and landscape architects and the like, . . . because somebody thought government ought to save both people and shrubs from the trauma of a bad haircut. . . . We’re choking on an excess of benevolence. . . .
“[The state] props up segments of industry that ought to die a noble death in the marketplace. It creates social distortions like welfare that destroy the people they’re supposed to help. . . . In our cities we’ve got people living in places where government interference has completely driven out all the economic and social vitality of the community. These places are nothing short of public sector hells. . . . If a program fails, government historically . . . has slapped another program on top of it. . . . That's how Massachusetts wound up with 23 separate agencies serving the disabled; 41 separate job-training programs. . . . The Code of Massachusetts Regulations has grown so vast, bookshelves buckle under it.”
It was a grim description; but most depressing was the speaker’s identity: William Weld. Nearly five years after the inaugural address that was to have ushered in an unprecedented downsizing of state government, Weld was still announcing the revolution's imminent arrival. His rhetoric was as pro-market and anti-statist as it had been in 1990. By 1995, however, it was hard for any but the most wishful to believe he actually meant it.
Weld took office in the middle of the state’s worst crisis in five decades. Just three years after Michael Dukakis had run for president on the strength of the "Massachusetts miracle," the Bay State was on the verge of fiscal collapse. The $13.4 billion 1991 budget, which Dukakis had pronounced balanced when it was adopted in July 1990, was being pronounced $500 million out of balance by the time Weld was elected. In fact, as Weld would discover after taking office, the deficit was closer to $800 million.
There never really had been a Massachusetts miracle. The state had outperformed most of the nation during the economic boom of the mid-1980s, but not because of any Dukakis wizardry. Its soaring growth had been powered by two engines: Proposition 21/2, the 1980 property tax cut adopted by ballot initiative that lit a fire under the Massachusetts real estate market; and the Reagan-era military buildup, which pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into Route 128, the high-tech highway ringing Boston.
As the economy surged, so did tax revenues—and state spending. With money no object, the Dukakis budget had room for all manner of new government programs and benefits, each of which instantly acquired a political constituency. By the time the downturn came in 1987 and revenues slowed to a trickle, spending was out of control. Unable to turn off the cash-guzzling machine they had revved up, Dukakis and the Legislature resorted to frantic borrowing and repeated increases in state taxes and fees.
It wasn’t enough. By 1990, deficit spending reached unprecedented levels. Despite three years of jolting tax and fee hikes, Beacon Hill couldn't balance its books. The state began floating bonds to cover operating expenses. As more and more money was bled from the private sector, and as the national recession grew more severe, the state’s condition grew worse. By the time Dukakis departed, Massachusetts’s bond rating was the lowest of any state, just one step above “non-investment grade”—junk—level.
Meanwhile, the recession, deepened by the tax increases, vaporized hundreds of thousands of jobs. Unemployment was 8 percent—well above the national figure—and climbing. Real estate prices were collapsing. The public’s mood lurched between anger and panic. As Weld came to power, Massachusetts had become a fiscal Beirut.
The new governor’s first priority was to stop the trauma, and he did so. He forced the 1991 budget he’d inherited from Dukakis into balance, in part by requiring state workers to take unpaid "furloughs," in part by cutting state aid to cities and towns—but mostly by landing an unexpected windfall: a $531 million federal reimbursement for Medicaid expenses (a “gooney bird,” Weld called it—a piece of great fortune that fell from the sky).
However it was done, it was done: the 1991 fiscal year ended in the black. A scheduled expansion of the sales tax was scrapped. A decrease in the state income tax took place as planned. For fiscal 1992, Weld actually budgeted less money than the year before. That was a Massachusetts miracle, and it earned the governor glowing attention from conservatives nationwide. The Wall Street Journal hailed Weld as one of the nation’s most “courageous” chief executives. The libertarian Cato Institute rated him the best governor in America.
In July 1992, Weld’s first full budget cycle came to an end. Total spending had indeed decreased from 1991. Not by much—only 1.7 percent (about $200 million)—but it was the clearest sign imaginable that the budget meltdown had been confronted and reversed. In a political culture where “cut” commonly means “raising spending by less than planned,” Weld’s accomplishment—actually reducing spending from one year to the next—seemed wondrous. Soon Wall Street was raising the commonwealth’s paper out of the bond-rating basement. Unemployment dropped. The state’s business groups expressed renewed confidence. The crisis was over.
Ending the budgetary free fall bequeathed by Dukakis has been Weld’s signal achievement as governor. He has balanced each of his budgets without short-term borrowing and without raising taxes—in fact, the state has finished each year with a slight surplus, and some business taxes have been cut. In September 1995, Financial World ranked Massachusetts the 11th-best-managed state in the nation; four years earlier it had ranked the Bay State dead last.
It helped greatly, of course, that the recession that had battered New England so badly ended early on Weld’s watch. Before the recovery finally began in 1992, Massachusetts had lost 360,000 jobs—a staggering 11 percent of its employment base. Since then, jobs have grown by 1.9 percent annually, a little lower than the national average of 2.2 percent. “That isn’t a bad performance,” says economist Sara Johnson of DRI/McGraw Hill, a leading econometric forecasting firm. “But Massachusetts could certainly do much better.”
Which, in a way, sums up the Weld administration’s record.
Weld, to his great credit, put Massachusetts’s books right side up: Beacon Hill no longer spends more than it takes in. But that is about as far as his “reinventing government” has gone. The state’s fiscal house no longer totters on its foundation. But neither has it been rebuilt according to the entrepreneurial, privatized, free-market blueprint on which Weld had campaigned.
For all Weld’s talk of downsizing, his administration has “upsized” in every year save its first. Final spending by Massachusetts in fiscal year 1992 was $13.4 billion; the appropriation for the current fiscal year (ending July 31, 1996) is $16.8 billion. State spending, in other words, will have climbed 25.4 percent in just four years. Inflation has totaled just 10.3 percent.
By January 1992, Weld had abandoned his oft-repeated vow to carve $1 billion from the budget. In his State of the State address that month, he proposed adding $1 billion instead. He boasted of multi-million-dollar “increases in several key programs” in his forthcoming fiscal 1993 spending plan. “As these examples illustrate,” he said, “we’re not against government spending. We don’t wish to dismantle government.”
A year later, Weld’s proposed 1994 budget included yet another $1 billion spending hike. “We’re seeing a completely different Bill Weld than we saw a couple of years ago,” exulted James Braude, director of the staunchly liberal Tax Equity Alliance for Massachusetts, which had led the fight against Question 3, the 1990 tax rollback ballot issue. The state’s foremost anti-tax advocate, by contrast, was dismayed. “Spending is out of control,” said Barbara Anderson of Citizens for Limited Taxation, “just like it used to be.”
How could Weld, who had come to office waving a budget-slashing scimitar, have turned into a bigger spender than his predecessor? “Anyone who looks at this budget,” said State Representative Tom Finneran, the moderate Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, “will see Mike Dukakis, a foot taller, with a different shade of hair. The governor is doing everything he accused Dukakis of.”
Weld’s own explanation was incoherent. “My hope is that revenues continue to go up,” he told the Boston Herald, “even if that means the budget goes up. If to some extent we’re victims of our own successes, . . . that’s not all bad.” Was this the same Republican who used to remind audiences that there was no such thing as government money, only taxpayers’ money?
In reality, once the budget crisis was over, a majority of Beacon Hill Democrats found spending cuts intolerable. To cut spending a second (or third, or fourth) year in a row, Weld would have had to fight the legislative leadership—hard. It would have been unpleasant, and Weld avoids unpleasant fights. Not for lack of mettle: as a federal prosecutor he was tenacious. But when it comes to relationships with people he must deal with, Weld is conflict averse. Forced to choose between antagonizing the top Democrats in the statehouse and adjusting his ends, Weld adjusted.
Besides, his passion for budget cutting as an end in itself—as a way to reduce the scope of government and shift power to the private sector—seemed to have largely dried up after the inaugural. Rather than pressing the genuinely revolutionary view that the state should spend less and do less because less government would be better for the economy and for society, Weld argued only that spending had to be curbed to avert economic collapse. When the fiscal storm ended, that argument lost its force.
If Weld—a Republican governor facing a Democratic legislature—had really hoped to push a government-shrinking agenda, it was clear he would have had to draw political strength from some source other than public desperation. For that, he had two options: build a powerful cadre of loyalists in his own administration, or expand the Republican minority in the Legislature. He did neither.
From the outset, most of Weld’s appointees did not share his campaign vision of a sharply slimmed-down government. His post-election transition committee tilted noticeably leftward. “Weld Picks a Lot of Liberals” was the headline on a Herald story two weeks after the 1990 election. To some extent, Weld was merely paying a political debt. He had been elected with a strong crossover vote from liberal Democrats put off by their own party’s abrasive nominee, John Silber.
But Weld’s appointments also reflected his social and cultural orientation. A high-bred Yankee with Long Island roots, an education at Exeter, Harvard, and Oxford, and a wife (the former Susan Roosevelt of Oyster Bay) who backed Dukakis for president, Weld is at ease in the liberal milieu of Cambridge, where he lives. He is a Republican of the Elliot Richardson, not the Ronald Reagan, variety. The ambience of a Grateful Dead concert is far more congenial to him—he donned a black ribbon when Jerry Garcia died—than that of a Republican convention.
As Weld shaped his team, the nod often went to appointees on the strength of personal friendship or politically correct “diversity.” He won kudos for the number of women and blacks he named to his Cabinet, but by common acknowledgment they were generally the least impressive members of the administration. He named former Dukakis aides and supporters to Cabinet posts and judgeships. In one agency after another—Public Utilities, Public Health, Youth Services, Environmental Affairs—the faces of the fledgling Republican administration were those of the outgoing, discredited Democratic administration. In a political roundup column one year into the nouveau regime, the Herald quoted the lyrics of a Who song to characterize the Weld bureaucracy: “Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss.”
There were, of course, exceptions—most notably James J. Kerasiotes, Weld’s first highway commissioner (later elevated to the Cabinet as transportation secretary). He unapologetically swept “Dukakoids” from his agency, sliced its budget and payroll, and mounted a hatchet in his office as a symbol of his willingness to battle defenders of the status quo. “That’s what elections are all about,” Kerasiotes said. “Those people who can’t work in sync with your agenda ought to leave.”
Kerasiotes’s combative style earned the enmity of state-employee unions. Unlike other Weld officials, he was happy to return the bureaucrats' scorn. To audiences and interviewers, he relayed a stream of anecdotes about the goldbricking and waste he was uncovering. More significantly, he began changing the way his department did business. He halved the number of state cars taken home by employees of the state mass-transit authority and auctioned off the excess vehicles. For the first time in 30 years, the department used competitive bidding to retain bond counsel. Kerasiotes cut a public relations staff of eight to one. He was explicit about whose agenda he was following. “Until I’m told otherwise,” he said, “I’m taking the governor’s campaign promises as my marching orders.”
But more typical were the department and commission heads who shared none of Weld’s early fervor for downsizing, and who had no intention of dismantling anything. Some of the most crucial positions in state government went to appointees completely at odds with Weld’s philosophy. “He just never grasped the importance of doing an ideology check on people,” said a member of the governor’s senior staff. Another aide lamented in a confidential 1992 memo: “How can we possibly revolutionize state government when virtually the entire bureaucracy is in enemy hands?”
But by then it was clear that Weld no longer intended to revolutionize state government. The ideological clarity of his campaign and his inaugural message was dissipated. “Philosophically, I’m a work in progress,” Weld said of himself, and his performance echoed his lack of focus.
Latitudinarian by nature, Weld was uncomfortable with the idea of testing potential nominees for ideological purity. But a governor who doesn’t concern himself with the political views of his appointees is not a governor who can lead a revolution. In May 1992, Martin Kaplan, chairman of the state Board of Education, told the Boston Globe: “The governor has never, when I came on the board or became chairman, told me how I should move on certain issues.” Across much of the Weld administration, that was the prevailing attitude.
Weld proved no better at building a strong Republican presence in the State Legislature. The 1990 election that had swept Weld into office had also swelled Republican ranks in the 40-member State Senate to 16—enough to sustain a gubernatorial veto. Weld’s power to strike down bills was a weapon the Democrats who controlled the Legislature had to respect. If Weld were serious about transforming state government, preserving his veto and expanding the GOP base should have been his top political priorities.
Instead, he allowed the Republican Party to fall apart. He paid little attention to the GOP’s few officeholders and kept the Republican State Committee powerless. He recruited few candidates to run for office and delivered minimal assistance to those who did. Result: in the 1992 legislative elections, Republican Senate seats shrank from 16 to 9. Weld's power shrank, too. Democrats could now override his vetoes at will, and often did. In December 1993, Weld suffered a key defeat: over his objection, the Legislature enacted a law intended to prevent privatization.
Yet even this loss seemed to teach him nothing. When he ran for reelection in 1994, he again left fellow Republicans to fend for themselves, even as he spent more than $4.5 million on his own campaign against a weak Democratic nominee. As he romped to a second term with 71 percent of the vote, his party gained exactly zero seats on Beacon Hill. In a year of massive GOP pickups around the country, Massachusetts was one of only four states where Republicans gained no ground.
“Why didn’t he recruit a slate of 40 Republicans to run for the Senate?” asked one unhappy Republican activist. “I love Bill Weld, but he’s going to be hurt by his failure to do anything to help his party.” Former State Senator Arthur Chase, a Worcester Republican, concluded that Weld “was more concerned about getting the largest possible reelection margin for himself than with electing the largest number of Republicans. I think his objective was to catapult himself onto the national scene.”
By the end of 1994, Weld appeared to have lost interest in his job. Increasingly absorbed with national Republican politics, he began taking soundings for a presidential run. He seized every opportunity to fly to Washington for appearances with the new Republican leaders in Congress. He bragged about the book he and Speaker Newt Gingrich allegedly were going to write together.
Weld eventually decided not to run for the White House and signed on instead as a top fund-raiser for California Governor Pete Wilson. He plunged into Wilson's presidential campaign (and out of Massachusetts) so energetically that his absence became a running joke. The Globe began clocking the hours Weld actually spent in his office in a feature called “Weld Watch.” The Herald editorialized: “Time to come home, Bill.” One Boston radio station even sent two talk-show hosts on a “Where’s Weld-o?” search for the missing governor.
But Weld’s efforts to project influence nationally didn’t alter his standing on Beacon Hill, where—lacking an aggressive command staff and bereft of Republican troops in the Legislature—he has found himself without much political muscle. Disinclined by temperament to “pull a Reagan”—that is, to bypass the Legislature and take his case to the people—Weld came to adopt a policy of accommodation.
He began bending over backward to get along with the legislative leadership. No longer did he condemn the Legislature as “rotten to the core.” On the contrary: in November 1994, in the face of enormous public hostility (but to enthusiastic acclaim inside the statehouse), he introduced a bill to raise legislators' pay by 55 percent. The move came just a few weeks after Weld told reporters that a pay hike was “not something we’re considering.” Adding insult to injury, the bill made the raise unrepealable by referendum.
Weld’s aides insisted he wasn’t sleeping with the enemy but simply being cagey and practical. The governor’s willingness to take the heat for a pay raise, they pointed out, was promptly rewarded by the Legislature with the capital gains tax cut Weld had long sought.
But such victories were few and very far between, not enough to explain Weld’s ostentatious chumminess with the legislative leaders he used to execrate. Just how far he was willing to go to win favor with the Democrats was evident on Election Day 1994. At a polling place in South Boston, Weld actually campaigned with Bill Bulger, the State Senate president he had denounced so hotly four years earlier. He introduced himself to bemused voters as “Senator Bulger’s campaign manager” and urged them to reelect the senator—the state’s most powerful Democrat, a vehement opponent of term limits, tax cuts, and most privatization, the antithesis of nearly everything Weld had stood for in 1990. “He’s a good man,” Weld grinned. One year later, Weld helped this “good man” step up to the presidency of the University of Massachusetts.
What happened? It may be that Weld doesn’t take governing—or political differences—too seriously. He enjoys the gamesmanship of politics more than the substance of policy. Embracing the Democrats who hold power on Beacon Hill was a way of staying in the game, of demonstrating his good sportsmanship. It certainly added to his reputation for puckish unpredictability.
Weld’s change of opinion about Bulger symbolized his transformation from an anti-government crusader to an amiable status-quo politician, from an outsider bent on “reinventing government” to an insider content with managing the government that exists.
Just how committed Weld ever really was to “taming the beast” is open to question. Like sunspots, his anti-government zeal flares up at intervals. When Weld is running for office, that zeal is pronounced; thereafter it largely subsides. On the campaign trail in 1990 and 1994, he fervently attacked government's wasteful, oppressive ineptitude. Once the votes were counted, he seemed to find government much less offensive. In November 1995, as he prepared to run against U.S. Senator John Kerry, Weld again cranked up the downsizing rhetoric.
“We’ve insulated, we’ve sealed, we’ve caulked the old place”—state government— “as much as possible,” he proclaimed, “but it’s still leaking taxpayer dollars like crazy. It’s time to knock the old fleabag down.” He proposed a slew of reforms, from abolishing Cabinet departments to privatizing mass transit to making driver’s licenses permanent. He said his plan would reduce state spending by $659 million, and that most of the savings would be returned in the form of tax cuts. Whether the governor who had driven state spending up at two and a half times the rate of inflation actually meant any of this was—not to put too fine a point on it—uncertain.
In fairness, Weld has presided over some downsizing of state functions. A number of market-oriented reforms have taken effect, some despite harsh opposition. For example, in its first year, the Weld administration hired a private firm to provide medical services for the state’s prison inmates, replacing some 200 state workers, reducing costs to the treasury, and improving the quality of care. Similarly, the Department of Mental Retardation privatized food and housekeeping services at facilities housing 1,600 retarded citizens. In-house operations that had required 725 state workers and cost $23 million were contracted to private vendors. Costs dropped $10 million, most of the laid-off state workers found jobs with the new vendors, and the department reported “substantial improvements in cleanliness, sanitation, and quality of food.”
A Weld drive to shut down nine underused public hospitals was largely successful. The administration closed eight of them by late 1993, moving thousands of patients to residential settings or into nursing homes and saving some $36 million per year. The administration drew praise for keeping its promise that every transferred patient would end up receiving “equal or better care.”
Beginning in 1992, Weld's administration contracted out highway maintenance in eastern Massachusetts, long the domain of public-sector unions. The results are impressive by any measure: the Highway Department has cut its workforce from 3,100 to 2,300 and its operating budget from $96 million to $73 million—while increasing the frequency of grass mowing, bridge washing, and road sweeping. In Dukakis's last term, 302 state bridges were repaired or rebuilt; in Weld’s first term, that number nearly doubled, to 595. Researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government audited the privatization program in Essex County and found it 21 percent more cost-effective than the old system.
Weld has reined in Medicaid spending, the biggest line-item in the budget, to an annual growth rate of less than 3 percent—a phenomenal change from Dukakis's last term, when it was skyrocketing 20 percent a year. In essence, the Weld administration transformed Medicaid into a giant HMO, using the state’s financial clout to win lower prices from hospitals and nursing homes. A private firm took over mental health care and drug treatment. For the first time, the system concentrated on treating Medicaid patients in the right setting—steering them away from gold-plated teaching hospitals, for example, when a community hospital would be more appropriate. Weld also won passage of a law deregulating hospital finances: no longer would the state tell insurers how much to pay hospitals for various services; now insurers (including Medicaid) were free to negotiate deals for themselves. Result: a remarkable slowing of the rise in health care costs and the taming of what had been the worst budget buster in Massachusetts.
These were not trivial accomplishments. But they hardly added up to a sweeping overhaul of Massachusetts government. And they didn't spring from any administration-wide passion to shrink state government. Almost all the downsizing and privatizing successes were the work of two officials who shared a genuine commitment to curbing the scope of government. One was Kerasiotes, the highway commissioner later elevated to transportation secretary. The other was Charles D. Baker, who joined the administration as undersecretary for health, moved up to secretary of health and human services, and in 1994 was made secretary of administration and finance, the highest post in the Cabinet.
Weld once called Baker “the soul of the Weld administration.” He said of Kerasiotes: “I wish I had a dozen like him.” That he had only one of each was no one’s fault but Weld’s. Had he paid greater attention to personnel, seeking out and appointing more Bakers and Kerasioteses to state office, a Weld revolution might indeed have taken place.
What took place instead was a retreat. On the evidence of his first five years, Weld’s enthusiasm for reining in government is gone. He may still, on occasion, talk the talk—his call last November to “knock the old fleabag down” was, if anything, even more radical than his first inaugural address; and in his race for the Senate, he has revived the conservative themes of his gubernatorial campaigns. But in most areas, he has yet to walk the walk.
Reducing Massachusetts’s network of state colleges once stood high on Weld’s to-do list. While public higher education predominates elsewhere, in Massachusetts—where the tradition of private higher learning is older than statehood—state institutions award only 20 percent of academic degrees. Yet an empire of 29 mediocre public colleges has bloated up, built mostly to satisfy the “edifice complex” of a succession of governors and legislators. Weld had said he would consolidate the system, closing campuses and trimming the budget by $40 million. But when an uproar ensued, he reversed course. In May 1991 he announced: “There will be no campus closings; . . . that $40 million is going back into the higher ed budget.” Today Weld dreams of building “a public university on a par with Michigan and California.” Spending on the state college empire is now 24 percent more than when he was inaugurated.
Privatizing chunks of the state’s transportation infrastructure was supposed to be part of the Great Downsizing. In April 1991 Weld’s first transportation secretary touted the virtues of privately operated toll roads. At various times, Weld or his aides have suggested privatizing the new Central Artery, a below-ground highway now under construction; the Massachusetts Turnpike, a 135-mile road running from Boston to New York State; the traffic tunnels that connect downtown Boston to the East Boston peninsula; the buses and subways of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority; and Logan International Airport. Except for the MBTA (still unprivatized, but Kerasiotes is talking about it), all these suggestions have died.
Weld took office vowing to privatize Boston’s state-owned Hynes Convention Center, a paradigm of mismanagement that loses millions annually. But when Bulger—whose former chief aide is executive director of the Hynes—objected, Weld backed down. He even signed a law providing the Hynes with a guaranteed subsidy. “Weld’s first cave-in was on the Hynes,” recalls GOP Congressman Peter Blute, who as a state legislator had led the effort to privatize the convention center. “There was a big meeting with Weld and all of us who had been fighting the Democrats on the Hynes, and we urged him not to do it. We told him, ‘Hey, we have a lot invested here.’ But he basically said he had to deal with Bulger.” By 1994 Weld was backing efforts to build a second government-owned convention center in Boston.
In 1992, Weld favored ending Massachusetts’s ludicrous requirement that all road repair or construction sites be supervised by police officers on paid details—a government monopoly that costs utilities and municipalities at least $100 million annually. But the Legislature, heavily lobbied by police unions unwilling to give up this lucrative perk, refused to consider the issue. So Weld declined to push it. “Come back when you’ve got 81 votes [a majority] in the House, and let’s talk about it,” he told the Globe. Any attempt on his part to change legislators’ minds, he said, “would be performing a vain act.”
Just before his inauguration, Weld noted that he looked forward to “blowing up” the Metropolitan District Commission, a hodgepodge state agency that manages—with notorious incompetence—an assortment of Greater Boston parks, pools, beaches, and roadways. Five years later the MDC remains unscathed, with a favorite Weld aide at its head.
Since Weld has been governor, in fact, no state agency or bureau has been abolished. Several, however, have been created. Weld has further cluttered the state’s bureaucracy with an executive office of education (complete with a Cabinet secretary), several new licensing boards, a Gay and Lesbian Youth Commission, and a Governor’s Advisory Committee on Women’s Issues.
In 1992 he lobbied for the creation of government-managed investment funds to back start-up companies that private lenders deemed too risky. “Some people,” Weld acknowledged, “will ask, ‘Why are you being so proactive?’ I say, these are market failures we are responding to.” This was a far cry from the fiscal libertarian who in 1990 had condemned the state’s “unwieldy structure of ‘industrial policy,’” scorning anyone who thought government ought to be picking the economy’s winners and losers.
In the 1988 presidential campaign, one of Michael Dukakis’s mantras was “competence, not ideology.” Ironically, that slogan in many ways describes not the performance of Dukakis but of his successor in the Massachusetts statehouse. The Bay State today is managed much as Dukakis must have wished he could manage it—by a government that is large, intrusive, and expensive, but mostly free of scandal and able to balance its budget.
Frankly, there is little about the commonwealth's government in Year 5 of the Weld era that Dukakis would object to. Expenditures and tax revenues go up each year—both by several points more than the inflation rate—but spending never outstrips income. Massachusetts citizens pay very high taxes (the Tax Foundation estimates their tax burden as the nation’s eighth-heaviest), and the state is ruled by a government that involves itself in everything: foster care and smoking prevention, job training and arts subsidies, liquor wholesaling and harness racing, school discipline and the price of milk, manicurists, and auto insurance. In the name of environmental protection, the state promulgates reams of regulations, many of them stringent and costly to business. The state supervises and regulates dozens of professions, and only a few of its functions have been privatized. State employees are very well paid; state legislators—thanks to the Weld pay raise—even more so. As a rule, the government's priorities are Democratic priorities. Racial preferences are required by law and defended by the governor. Abortion is widely available and in many cases state funded. Onerous new mandates have been signed into law—mandatory electric car quotas, mandatory helmets for kids riding bikes, a mandatory school curriculum on “gay sensitivity.”
All this, and more, is as Michael Dukakis might have wished.
Dukakis drove Massachusetts into a fiscal car wreck and plunged its voters into a winter of discontent. That, Weld changed. Measured against the standard set by his predecessor, Weld stands tall. But measured against the standard he set for himself, Weld has been a singular disappointment. Under his supervision the government grew up, not down; more powerful, not less. On Beacon Hill the “failed dogmas of big government” are as entrenched as ever. The Weld revolution has yet to happen.