Time for Beacon Hill to pick up the pace
Lack of political urgency is becoming real problem
COVID-19 HAS HIGHLIGHTED all of Massachusetts weaknesses; chief among them, our political leadership’s inability to respond with urgency to major challenges. While Massachusetts has responded better than many states, better than bad isn’t good enough. The major challenge facing leaders now is how to ensure an equitable recovery, working to close the racial and economic divides the virus has brought to the forefront. Unfortunately, policymakers are missing the mark, failing to act on immediate needs or address structural challenges.
The glacial pace of change on Beacon Hill is an ongoing obstacle to change. It is bad enough in non-pandemic conditions, but it threatens lives under our current reality. For example, Massachusetts is currently in the third of a four-phase reopening plan and yet legislation to extend emergency sick time benefits for 1.5 million mostly poor, black and brown workers has not been a priority. We cannot re-open safely, let alone equitably, if millions of workers – many of whom were deemed essential during the virus – are being forced to choose between their job and their health.
By choosing to go slow, if at all, policymakers are increasing the cost of solutions. Instead of solving problems when they are manageable, we try to solve them after they metastasize. Equitable transportation funding has been a clear need for a generation and lack of political will has led to gridlock – both literally and figuratively.
The inability of policymakers to develop a statewide transportation plan to sustainably fund our current and future needs has driven up the costs of the solution. In 2007, the Transportation Finance Commission highlighted a $15-19 billion gap in maintaining current system operations through 2027. Last year, A Better City commissioned a study showing at least $50 billion was needed to fund system maintenance, improvements, and expansions, 60 percent of which was not funded. This never-ending cycle appears due for another spin, as the state Senate recently announced they had abandoned any debate on additional revenue for transportation. Two decades of deferring decisions have increased inequality and the cost of solutions.
Massachusetts’ failure to act with urgency on racial justice has left the black poverty rate 215 percent higher and the Latinx poverty rate 303 percent higher than that of their white neighbors. The wealth of the median white family in Greater Boston is $247,500, a Latinx family is $3,000, and an African American family is $8. This was before the pandemic. These numbers are the norm in Massachusetts, they are the rule and they are the result of a political culture more focused on preserving power than on using it for the greater good.
The end result of our inability to respond with urgency is a policymaking process that protects the status quo. That status quo is not static and it is not sustainable. Worsening economic and racial inequality, crumbling transportation systems, soaring housing costs within Greater Boston, and stagnant economies outside do not have to define our present or future. I know how difficult this can be. I have been in these debates. What concerns me now is that on most issues, policymakers do not recognize the urgency of the moment.
If we want change, we need our leaders to act with urgency and that starts with Gov. Charlie Baker. Unfortunately, for too many families over the past six years, Baker has not shown urgency, and neither have many of our other political leaders for the last three decades.We can solve these issues, but it will require political leadership that acts with urgency to meet immediate needs and solve long-term challenges. The first step is responding to this crisis with solutions at the speed, scope, and scale that are necessary to create an equitable recovery. I worry we are not meeting that test and it is only the first of many. Massachusetts has everything we need to solve the big challenges facing us. Now all we need is political leadership to meet the moment.
Ben Downing is vice president of new market development at Nexamp and represented Western Massachusetts in the Senate from 2007 to 2016. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminDowning.