Is Massachusetts governor too optimistic on state budget?

BUDGET-shaping, especially in Massachusetts, is far from an exact science, even in the hands of the supposed experts. Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, in trying to come up with a spending program for fiscal 1988 that is within the commonwealth's means, may have relied too heavily on rose-tinted glasses.

The $11.4 billion budget, proposed for the 12 months commencing July 1, is based on some questionable economic and political assumptions. The record budget, up 4.6 percent over this fiscal year, could be out of balance by $200 million.

Much hinges on whether the revenue projections used by Mr. Dukakis are on target. They are some $150 million above what some close to the state income scene have forecast.

In fairness to the governor, his estimates are slightly lower than the figures that some fiscal analysts suggest. A safer course might have been to base spending recommendations on the leanest income projections. But that would have meant foregoing several programs on the Dukakis agenda.

Another prime example of where the governor is clearly counting on ``unhatched chickens'' is some $100 million expected through improved revenue department enforcement. First, the legislature must provide the personnel needed to collect the funds owed. Even if the increased $10 million for the revenue department is approved, there is no guarantee that the yield from the investment will measure up to Dukakis projections.

Will state lawmakers go along with other Dukakis proposals to boost state income? One of these would have the commonwealth take half of the accumulated $70 million in unclaimed deposits on beverage containers.

The Dukakis budget, submitted Jan. 28, also embraces standby authorization to increase various state fees. While a strong case can be made for requiring users of various state services to pay more for what they get, selling lawmakers on the idea could be another story.

Despite its potential shortcomings, the proposed budget for the first time in decades attempts to present a complete spending picture for each agency and program, by eliminating the practice of carrying over into the new year any unused money from previous authorizations.

Under the present setup, millions of dollars of such surpluses are retained by agencies by simply inserting ``prior appropriation continued'' in the next year's budget.

Ending that practice would require legislative cooperation. And that is hardly assured. It may simply be too convenient a budget camouflaging device for Senate and House budget-crafters to surrender. Much could depend on how firmly committed the governor is to this reform.

Although Dukakis's 1988 spending package is only $502.6 million higher than what it is expected to cost to run Massachusetts during the current fiscal year, it covers a lot of ground, including some laudable initiatives. It seeks an additional $147 million in direct aid to the cities and towns, a 6 percent cost-of-living adjustment in welfare benefits, and increased funding to house an expanding prison population. But it also seeks to deal with adult illiteracy, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, and school dropout problems.

The Dukakis attempt to address these social challenges is commendable. But in the process the budget may be stretched too much. What is needed is a long-overdue assessment of the impact of various existing programs, and the curtailment or elimination of those that are not doing the job or are less essential than certain of the governor's proposals.

There is a limit to how many activities the Bay State or its local governments can bankroll, if new or higher taxes are to be avoided. Having slimmed the state burden by nearly $450 million during the past two years, it would make no sense to pursue a spending course that might spur another levy boost, no matter how modest.

Since most public spending programs have a constituency, and both governor and legislators are reluctant to do anything that might disappoint any special interest, they are less likely to initiate the phase-out of an agency or project. For that reason every new or broadened state activity, or obligation, should be self-terminating after a specified period, unless its life is extended by statute.

Also worthy of consideration, in the interest of balanced budgets without tax hikes, would be provision for a special panel of economists and financial experts from across Massachusetts, whose responsibility would be to make binding and ideally conservative revenue growth projections for both the governor and legislature.

Such an impartial, or at least bipartisan, commission would have no incentive to tilt revenue estimates, as executive-branch and legislative specialists have done all too often over the years.

George Merry is a longtime observer of the Massachusetts political scene.

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