New center aims to shed light — through data — on state policy

The ways of Beacon Hill can be mysterious to those on the outside, with the public often left in the dark on all the factors that shaped a particular bill or policy.

But lawmakers themselves are frequently in the dark on all the implications of legislation they are asked to vote on. Often the only information they have to go on when deciding whether to approve a tax credit or change the way health care is regulated comes from interested parties on either side — or from legislative leaders eager to push through bill without a lot of debate.

A new research center at Tufts University is aiming to change the conversation on state policy by producing rigorous — and unbiased — analysis of important issues facing lawmakers and voters. The Center for State Policy Analysis will operate as a state-level version of the Congressional Budget Office, which carries out neutral, evidence-based evaluations of issues facing Congress.

Already on tap are analyses of Gov. Charlie Baker’s Transportation Climate Initiative, a look at the options and trade-offs of various approaches to reining in prescription drugs costs, and analyses of ballot questions voters will face in the fall — on car repair regulations, beer and wine sales, and ranked-choice voting.

While existing organizations such as the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation carry out analysis aimed at helping to shape the agenda on Beacon Hill, the new center will focus on “legislation shaping, not agenda shaping,” says its director, Evan Horowitz, on this week’s Codcast. There are ways to make legislation better or worse by making it “less susceptible to unforeseen or unintended consequences,” he says.

The center will tap experts at Tufts and other area universities to carry out analyses of legislation and ballot questions. Horowitz says the center will aim to carry out 10 to 15 analyses per year. The issues the center will tackle, he says, are those likely to be voted in the next three to six months, which will “have a meaningful impact on people’s lives in the state,” and for which solid information from a neutral source could make a difference.

Crucial to the center’s success, says Horowitz, a former data-journalist at the Boston Globe, will be maintaining the “nonpartisan quality of the work and the nonpartisan reputation” it hopes to earn. But that doesn’t mean its analyses won’t point toward one outcome seeming preferable to another. “Nonpartisan doesn’t mean beloved by all,” says Horowitz. It means “not having an interest in the outcome of our research and sticking as close to the data and evidence as you can. It would be tragic for a nonpartisan group to flee from meaningful data because we felt a necessity to please everyone.”

Helping to backstop the center’s commitment to nonpartisan research is a bipartisan advisory council of policy and politics heavyweights that includes former Democratic governor Michael Dukakis and former Republican governor Jane Swift.

Information is the coin of the realm on Beacon Hill, and the new center could threaten the existing ways. House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka didn’t respond to a request for comment about the launch of the new institute when CommonWealth wrote about the center earlier this month.

“A wait-and-see position doesn’t surprise me,” said Horowtiz. “I have a lot to prove yet, and I’m hoping to prove it.”



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