Martinez: Time to transform state government

Martinez: Time to transform state government

Martinez: Time to transform state government

By Sandi Martinez/Guest Columnist

Thu Oct 08, 2009, 10:36 AM EDT

SUDBURY – Beacon Hill has responded to the Commonwealth’s fiscal crisis by cutting programs and shifting the burden to families and businesses through higher taxes. There’s a better way. The state’s financial problems should be providing a window of opportunity to overcome legislative inertia and entrenched bureaucracies and make real changes in public sector management in the Commonwealth.

There is a lot of work to be done. Massachusetts has lagged in the implementation of progressive management practices. Last year the Pew Center for the States, a Washington think tank, rated each state on the quality of public sector management practices. Massachusetts received a C. Only two states received a lower grade.

Here are three guiding principals for public sector transformation and specific examples of the application of each in Massachusetts.

Accountability: Management of state agencies and authorities must be held accountable for results. Massachusetts has lagged badly in this area. As Michael Widmer, President of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, put it “[a]ny notion of performance-based program budgeting has never really grabbed hold here.”

A starting point would be to require that every state agency and authority develop a productivity plan with measurable benchmarks for efficiency and service quality. The productivity plans should be made available to the public on the internet. The plans should detail how the agency will implement information technology to improve service and reduce costs. As an IT professional, I have seen first hand the transformative power of information technology in large organizations. It can be done.

Transparency: Proper disclosure is necessary for accountability. For years I have advocated that Massachusetts join other states and place the public checkbook-a listing of all state expenditures-on the internet for public inspection. Twenty seven states have already placed expenditure databases online and more are coming. Unfortunately, this spring the Massachusetts legislature again rejected this commonsense measure.

Massachusetts should adopt the disclosure standards and practices of states like Virginia or Washington that have been leaders in this area. States with open checkbooks polices have often been surprised by money saving proposals they have received from the public or from competing bidders for government contracts. This also needs to be done because it is the right thing to do. Where public money is being spent, the public has a right to know.

Honesty: We have been lying to ourselves about the cost of government programs in part because costs could be shifted to future generations in the form of debt or unfunded benefit obligations. The practice of avoiding of hard decisions by putting the costs on the public’s credit card needs to stop.

At the federal level, an independent entity, the Congressional Budget Office is charged with figuring out the financial impact of legislation. Massachusetts should do the same.

Here’s an example. The Commonwealth has over $22 billion in unfunded pension obligations. Each year there are over 100 bills filed in the legislature that would affect employee pension benefits. Nobody knows the cost of these measures. The legislature should require that every pension bill be accompanied by an actuarial report documenting the cost of each proposal. That way we can have a real discussion of the state’s finances and hold legislators accountable for the cost of their proposals.

Tax increases and service cuts should be a last resort for state government. Real efficiencies and service improvements need to be the primary focus. The state’s ongoing financial crisis should focus the mind and galvanize the political will to make real changes and find real solutions for Massachusetts.

Sandi Martinez ,  a Chelmsford resident and a former small business owner., is a candidate for state senate in the Third Middlesex District.

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