HOW much does it cost to run Massachusetts for a year, a month, a day, or even a minute? Don't ask Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, members of the legislature, or anyone else within state government who presumably should be in the know.
Even those closest to the commonwealth's fiscal scene can do little more than give an estimate, based on the figures they have concerning the operations of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches -- plus a lot of guessing on the data they do not have regarding independent public agencies.
The latter, involving at least 506 separate operations, many of which are single-purpose and low-profile, is the concern of one of the state's more influential lawmakers, Sen. Patricia A. McGovern. The Lawrence Democrat, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, hopes to close the information gap. But that could be a near-herculean task, since many of these public authorities are not required to report to anyone.
Yet each of these operations was created through legislation, and lawmakers could at any time impose upon them reporting requirements on their activities, assets, liabilities, number of personnel, and expenditures.
Of course, those directing some of the less visible independent agencies, especially those not dependent on periodic state appropriations, would not like having state officials look over their shoulders or the imposition of any controls that could lead to a lessening of their authority.
Nevertheless, these activities affect the financial well-being of the commonwealth, at least indirectly, regardless of whether their funds come from taxpayer dollars or direct borrowing.
Even if the state's full faith and credit are not pledged to secure the bonds of various agencies, certainly Massachusetts' government would have a moral obligation to step in if an agency defaulted in its financial obligations. State fiscal planners should have full knowledge of how much public debt -- general-obligation bonds and revenue bonds -- is outstanding in all areas of government.
The Ways and Means Committee's call for a one-year moratorium on new ones is wise. Senator McGovern's desire to look at what she terms ``the fourth branch of state government'' raises questions about the wisdom of providing services through government authority.
While the public-authority route has been in many cases the best way to provide important services at lowest cost to the taxpayers, in other instances it has been simply a vehicle to create a power structure for political patronage beyond the reach of civil service.
Among the major independent agencies created since 1974 are the state's Government Land Bank Authority, Municipal Wholesale Electric Company, Technology Development Corporation, Industrial Finance Agency, Educational Loan Authority, Technology Park Authority, Convention Center Authority, and Water Resources Authority.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee, to its credit, recommends a state constitutional amendment to require two-thirds approval votes in both legislative chambers before any new public authorities could be created.
Since all authorities are creatures of law, the senators and representatives clearly have the power to reshape or eliminate them. Each of these special agencies, as McGovern suggests, should be subject to review and required to justify their policies.