New Tufts center to offer independent analysis of legislation, ballot questions
Evaluations aimed at informing the lawmaking process and voter choices
AFTER YEARS OF inaction on Beacon Hill on proposals to create an agency to bring the sort of independent assessment of state legislation that the Congressional Budget Office provides at the federal level, a new research center at Tufts University is being launched to play that role from a perch outside government.
The Center for State Policy Analysis, which will be based in the university’s Tisch College of Civic Life, is aiming to fill that information void by providing rigorous analysis of legislative proposals and ballot questions facing voters.
“It’s immensely helpful to federal policymaking decisions, and I think an entity like that would be very helpful to state policymaking,” said Evan Horowitz, a former data-journalist at the Boston Globe, who will serve as the center’s director.
The new center has already identified a set of initial issues it plans to study and release reports on. They include an analysis of the likely impacts of the Transportation Climate Initiative, the multistate effort Gov. Charlie Baker is pushing to establish a cap-and-trade system for gasoline and diesel fuel wholesalers; an examination of the implications of various approaches to rising prescription drug costs; and an evaluation of the November ballot questions that voters will decide. Those could include measures regulating auto repair businesses, expanding sales of beer and wine in food stores, and a proposal to adopt ranked-choice voting.
Horowitz said the reports won’t pull any punches, but will be firmly based on sound research and data and, like the federal office that serves Congress, will steer clear of an ideological leaning. “Preserving the nonpartisan reputation of this center is everything,” he said.
“This is a terrific idea, and it’s really long overdue,” said Michael Widmer, the former president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.
Widmer will serve on an 11-member advisory council for the center along with a bipartisan roster of other government and budget policy heavy-hitters that includes former governors Michael Dukakis and Jane Swift, Babson College CFO Katherine Craven, who formerly ran the state’s school building authority and was a top legislative budget official, and Ted Landsmark, director of the Dukakis Center at Northeastern University.
Massachusetts is one of just six states without a government office that carries out some type of independent analysis of the fiscal impacts of proposed legislation, a situation that former Boston Business Journal editor George Donnelly once wrote often leaves lawmakers either in a state of “numeric ignorance or fiscal wishful thinking.”
It’s not for lack of effort by voices across the political spectrum to change that.
Sen Jamie Eldridge, who has expressed frustration over the years at the lack of detailed information on the impact of tax cuts and initiatives like the state film tax credit, has filed bills in each of the last three legislative sessions to create a state office to analyze the impact of bills and state policy.
“It just hasn’t gotten a lot of traction,” Eldridge said. His latest bill was referred last week to a legislative study, often the graveyard for measures the Legislature won’t take up. “I think there’s a reason for that,” said the liberal-leaning Democrat, who pointed to the “general centralization of power” in the Legislature, which he said makes leaders reluctant to welcome independent analyses of Beacon Hill decisions.
But she seemed already to anticipate during her 2014 campaign the cool reception the idea would get on Beacon Hill. House Speaker Robert DeLeo would “probably fight me tooth and nail” on the idea of an independent policy evaluation office, Goldberg said during a October 2014 debate.
Mary Connaughton said she was skeptical, as a member of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board of directors, of claims by legislative leaders that a 2009 consolidation of transportation agencies would save $6.5 billion over 20 years because the process was so opaque. “There were never any assumptions made public as to where that number came from, so no one was really on the hook and there is no accountability for how that number was arrived at,” said Connaughton, who now directs the government transparency program at the right-leaning Pioneer Institute and has long advocated for an independent fiscal analysis office at the state level.
“I think it’s a great move,” she said of the new center. “As we know, our Legislature doesn’t rank highly in terms of transparency on a national level. If the Legislature can’t do the job themselves,” she said of Beacon Hill inertia on calls for an independent policy evaluation agency, “then an outside entity doing it is the next best thing, and maybe even better.”
Horowitz, who worked at the liberal-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center before a four-year stint at the Globe, said he has briefed both DeLeo’s office and Senate President Karen Spilka’s office on the launch of the research center.
Neither DeLeo’s nor Spilka’s office responded to requests for comments on the new policy center.
Horowitz, who has a doctorate in literature and taught at the University of North Texas before leaving academia for the world of policy analysis, will initially be the center’s sole staff member. But he said the goal is to rely on contracting with academic experts for specific analyses, not to build a huge organization. “Even at full strength, I think we’re talking about four or five people,” he said. “Part of the point is to be really nimble and make sure on any subject we’re working with the best experts on that topic.”
Tufts is providing office space at both its main Medford campus and at its medical school campus in Chinatown because of its proximity to Beacon Hill. But operating funds for the center will come entirely from fundraising efforts. Horowitz said the center has received initial pledges from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts and Emergent Ventures, a grant program for social entrepreneurship projects based at George Mason University.
Widmer said the idea for a state office to provide independent appraisals of the fiscal implications of legislation came up regularly during his 25 years at Mass. Taxpayers Foundation. “But it never got any traction, and I never thought it would,” he said. “The Massachusetts Legislature, in my mind, would have no appetite for creating an independent body that could critique its work.”Alan Solomont, the dean of the Tisch College at Tufts, said he’s prepared for the fact that, as with the Congressional Budget Office at the federal level, analyses issued by the new center may well please those on one side of a given issue while drawing criticism from those on the other side. “Our role is to educate,” said Solomont. “We’ll put out the facts as a result of what we plan to be rigorous analysis of the sort that you would find in academia — and then come what may.”