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`Worst-Case Test' for Market Ideas

A Boston think tank sees `liberal' Massachusetts as a laboratory for shrinking government

By Max BootStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 12, 1993


A FREE-market think tank in liberal "Taxachusetts"?

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It sounds as likely as a pacifist in the Pentagon or an atheist in the Vatican. But suspend disbelief for a second.

The Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, based in Boston, really does exist. It really is dedicated to a less-government-is-better philosophy. And it has scored a few notable successes in increasing the efficiency of one of the United States' most pervasive state governments.

Fact: Last year, the Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services began privatizing pharmacies at 22 state-run hospitals. Although the privatization plan hasn't been completed, it already has saved the state $3 million. The impetus for the change came from one of the winning entries in Pioneer's annual "Better Government Competition" - a contest that seeks the public's input to improve the efficiency of state government.

Fact: Massachusetts also has contracted out the collection and processing of child-support payments. While this move hasn't saved any money yet, state officials say it has improved collections from "deadbeat dads." This idea, too, came from the Better Government Competition.

Fact: In 1992, Pioneer released "Reinventing the Schools: A Radical Plan for Boston," by institute co-director Steven Wilson. The book has become a leading study cited by proponents of a school-choice bill being considered in the state Senate.

With its steady drumbeat of reports and studies, Pioneer is at the forefront of a growing number of free-market think tanks that have popped up at the state level in the past decade. (See the story at left.)

PIONEER has had more success than many other state think tanks because it has had the good fortune to work closely with a governor who shares its free-market principles.

Since being elected in 1990, Gov. William Weld (R) has tried to downsize state government and reduce the taxes of Massachusetts residents. As part of his controversial reforms, he has privatized some state services.

The privatizations have drawn heavy fire from political opponents, who charge that they are not cost-efficient and that they reward politically connected contractors. But Governor Weld's reforms have been emulated in many other states.

Weld has often turned for ideas to the Pioneer Institute, even going so far as to order state bureaucrats to cooperate with researchers gathering information for the think tank's studies.

"We can work our hardest to reform state government but we still depend on groups like the Pioneer Institute and those who have participated in their Better Government Competition to keep a watchful eye and keep the suggestions flowing in abundance," Lt. Gov. Paul Cellucci told a Pioneer luncheon recently.

But skeptics scoff at some of Pioneer's notions. For example, one of the winners of the Better Government Competition suggested privatizing Boston's Logan Airport - an idea that never got off the runway.

"What if the [privatized] business fails?" asks Tom O'Connor, communications director for the Association of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Council 93. "If it's a vital institution [like the airport], we couldn't allow it to be shut down for even 24 hours. So the government would be obligated to step in and subsidize the company."