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.”

MICHAEL JONAS


 

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BEACON HILL

A bill to protect state-owned forests from timber harvesting is in limbo after being sent to a legislative study. (Berkshire Eagle)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Hubert Murray says Boston has an opportunity to push forward a tangible “green new deal” by approving an innovative proposal for the reuse of a Mattapan parcel that includes composting, a greenhouse, and a food services enterprise. (CommonWealth)

Developers in Lynn argue that a surge of new residential projects not only won’t promote gentrification, but will relieve pressure on the city’s housing stock by increasing the number of units. (Daily Item)

The Chaubunagungamaug Nipmuck tribe wants an environmental impact review carried out before Boston begins any redevelopment of Long Island for addiction treatment services, contending that there may be ancestral artifacts or remains on the island. (WBUR)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

The regional director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency says talk of a new team of SWAT-like agents arriving in New England is overblown, but revealed new details about enforcement operations across Massachusetts. (CommonWealth)

Immigrant rights groups are discussing the Trump administration’s new public charge rule at a Boston “teach-in.” (AP)

ELECTIONS

Following his decisive win in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, Bernie Sanders is now the clear front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination — and that has some party moderate fretting. (Boston Globe) Student activists at Smith College and UMass Amherst are feeling the Bern. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

MassLive posts online a list of all the early voting locations statewide.

A pro-Trump slate in West Roxbury is looking to oust the more moderate members of the local Repubican ward committee. (Boston Herald)

Republican candidates Jesse Brown of Plymouth and James “Jay” McMahon III of Bourne, are competing to keep the Plymouth & Barnstable District state Senate seat in the GOP column when voters head to the polls March 3 for a special election primary. (Cape Cod Times)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Coronavirus has some rethinking how dependent our economy has become on China. (Boston Globe) Stock markets are taking a hit as the number of cases of the virus continues to grow. (New York Times)

Quincy elected leaders are showing support for Asian businesses amid coronavirus fears. (Patriot Ledger)

EDUCATION

Bahar Akmar Imboden and Bob Hildreth say there would be unintended consequences of a move to tuition-free public college or cancelling all existing student debt. (CommonWealth)

Boston is taking a go-slow approach to revamping admission policies for its selective high schools, which advocates say shut out too many black and Latino students, after earlier talk of big changes was waved off by Mayor Marty Walsh. (Boston Globe)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

On the heels of lawsuits targeting opioid manufacturers, the family of a California man who died from an opioid overdose is now suing the Waltham-based Alkermes, the maker of Vivitrol, a drug used to treat addiction. (Boston Globe)

ARTS/CULTURE

A week after Plymouth Rock and a number of other monuments in Plymouth were vandalized with spray paint, it appears as if someone targeted the town’s September 11 memorial. (The Enterprise)

TRANSPORTATION

Transit advocates say the MBTA needs to adapt to the needs of modern commuters. (Telegram & Gazette)

The Standard-Times explores why Fairhaven’s Route 240 never extended into Acushnet.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

UMass researchers have developed a way to “make electricity out of thin air.” (MassLive)

Two Andover high school students are experimenting with enzymes to rid the oceans of plastic waste. (The Salem News)

CASINOS

WGBH takes a look at the impacts of casinos in Everett and Springfield on gamblers after the arrest of state Rep. David Nangle, who allegedly spent more than $70,000 of campaign funds in part to bankroll an extensive gambling habit.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

MassLive takes an in-depth look inside Franklin County jail’s medication assisted treatment program for opioid addiction.

Holyoke’s deputy fire chief is arrested for drunk driving. (MassLive)

A Milford man whose cocaine conviction was vacated due to the Annie Dookhan drug lab scandal sues the state and the MIddlesex DA’s office asking for compensation for the time he spent in jail. (Telegram & Gazette)

Notifications are going out to more than 27,000 people convicted of drunk driving telling them they may be eligible to have those convictions overturned due to problems with the state’s Breathalyzer tests. (Eagle-Tribune)

MEDIA

Has the media been stoking overblown fear of the coronavirus? (Nieman Journalism Lab)