Massachusetts cabinet should be kept small - and effective

SOME government cabinets are more visible and effective than others. During Gov. Michael Dukakis's first term in the mid-1970s, his cabinet met weekly in open session on Beacon Hill.

But times have changed, and open sessions of the governor's cabinet have become as rare as Republicans in the state's executive suite. While the Democratic governor and his top aides meet fairly regularly, usually twice a month, little is known about what is accomplished there.

Some superagency heads seem to be more comfortable airing their views behind closed doors where disagreements can be kept out of sight.

Unlike other state agencies, the cabinet has no formal status and therefore is not subject to state open-meeting law. It has as much authority, or influence, in decisionmaking as the governor allows. But the cabinet does keep him informed about administration affairs. And that may become increasingly important as his campaign for the presidential nomination moves forward and he is on the road more often.

Each of the 10 cabinet members heads a key agency with responsibilities often embracing a broad range of programs, involving millions of state tax dollars.

The intent of the 1969 statute providing for a cabinet was to reduce the number of departments, boards, and commissions reporting to the governor. That made sense then, when more than a hundred separate, diverse agencies reported directly to the chief executive.

In some instances, however, the cabinet approach has done little more than add another layer of authority to the executive branch, tending to make an already big government even bigger.

Originally there were to be nine so-called superagencies with cabinet status, whose heads reported to the governor. But before the first team was appointed by Republican Gov. Francis W. Sargent, the Democratic-controlled legislature added a 10th seat, that of the Elder Affairs secretary.

A decade later, state lawmakers abolished the Educational Affairs secretariat, an agency embracing programs and responsibilities involving the third largest segment of the state's annual operating budget. Democratic Gov. Edward J. King went along with the highly questionable 1981 move.

Since regaining the executive chair in January 1983, Dukakis has chosen not to revive the post. Instead he has named a special assistant for education in his office, to whom he has given cabinet-level rank, but without title. That appointee, however, appears to lack the clout in his field that other colleagues have in theirs.

While unwilling to bring back an executive office of educational affairs to help coordinate the state's programs in that important area, the legislature four years ago created a new, surely less needed superagency for labor affairs, headed by a full cabinet secretary. The post was quickly filled with a union official, Paul J. Eustace, a Dukakis political supporter.

Now there may be two more secretariats - for Criminal Justice and Local Affairs. Proposals for both are included in the Senate-approved version of the state's fiscal 1988 budget, now before legislative conferees.

The proposed executive office for criminal justice would be the umbrella agency over the Department of Corrections and the Parole Board. These operations have been within the Human Services secretariat, which also oversees welfare, mental health, public health, and children's and veterans' programs.

The local affairs secretariat would take jurisdiction over responsibilities involving assistance to cities, towns, and regional districts. These currently receive well in excess of $2 billion in state aid. These have been overseen or coordinated through the Communities and Development secretariat. Its scope would be substantially diminished by passage of this measure.

But cabinet expansion might could be a step in the wrong direction, contributing to a more unwieldy governmental superstructure. Instead, consideration might be given to a more logical grouping of agencies in the cabinet. Clearly the office of Human Services is responsible for too much. Other cabinet-level agencies may well have too small a domain to justify a full voice in state policy shaping.

All major functions of state government should be represented effectively in the executive branch's high command. The answer may be not more superagencies, but better, more cost-effective ones.

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