ONE of the biggest challenges facing Gov. Michael Dukakis in the coming months could be keeping the home fires burning. With the crucial Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary less than six months away, Massachusetts' White House-bent governor will almost certainly be spending more time on the campaign trail.
And that can only mean increased reliance on his executive team to keep Bay State government from losing some of the flame that helped attract national attention to Mr. Dukakis's leadership talents.
While there is no shortage of loyalty or dedication in the administration, Dukakis can hardly afford to lose aides like revenue commissioner Ira A. Jackson, who is leaving his $77,500-a-year post for the private sector.
Several other members of the administration may also be moving on in the months ahead, especially if the governor becomes increasingly preoccupied with his presidential pursuits.
Like Mr. Jackson, most of the first-string players on the Dukakis team have been around since his second term began, in January 1983. Some, like Transportation Secretary Frederick Salvucci, Public Safety Secretary Charles Barry, and Administration and Finance Secretary Frank Keefe, were on board in Dukakis's first term, 1975-78.
Were the governor to gain the 1988 Democratic nomination and go on to win the White House, Lt. Gov. Evelyn F. Murphy would take over the state reins in January 1989.
But few in the administration have been closer to Dukakis than Mr. Jackson, who came to Beacon Hill from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard where he was associate dean. Although no longer in the administration, there is little doubt he will remain a close Dukakis adviser to the extent his new job as director of external affairs for the Bank of Boston allows. Jackson's new employers were obviously impressed with his performance as chief of the revenue department, one of the most sensitive posts in state government.
He took an agency that had been tarnished by scandal and was hobbled by inefficiency and turned it around.
Particularly noteworthy has been the department's success in collecting taxes previously evaded or otherwise unpaid. The 1983 three-month amnesty program brought in $86 million from 52,000 taxpayers who for various reasons had failed to file state tax returns or pay all they owed in previous years.
Under Jackson, more than $1.3 billion in back taxes have been collected through greatly stepped-up enforcement. Voluntary tax-law compliance has produced another $1 billion in the past four years.
Personal income-tax refunds that used to take weeks or even months were speeded up and this year averaged 12.5 calendar days.
Encouraged by the results of his administration's Revenue Enforcement And Protection (REAP) program, Dukakis favors a similar broad-based effort at the federal level to narrow the gap between what is owed and what is collected. This is estimated at $110 billion a year, no trifling amount in view of the whopping national deficit.
A federal REAP program, including an amnesty period for tax delinquents to pay up, is a cornerstone of the Dukakis campaign. While it is unrealistic to expect that more than a few of those who served in Dukakis's state administration would be on his team were he to win the presidency, one of those select few just might be Ira Jackson.
Much could depend on whether the former revenue commissioner wants to return to government, where he has spent much of his career since graduation from Harvard 15 years ago.
Beginning as an aide to Mayor Kenneth Gibson of Newark, N.J., in 1972, the Brookline resident later moved back to Massachusetts where he served as administrative assistant to Boston Mayor Kevin H. White. After four years at City Hall he returned to Harvard where he stayed until invited by fellow Kennedy School colleague Dukakis to join the Bay State executive team.
Jackson's decision to move on was not unexpected, since the job of revamping the department is virtually complete. But had the post at the Bank of Boston not come along, he almost certainly would have stayed on longer.
There is nothing, however, to suggest he would remain on the job indefinitely. There is no ideal time to leave. September is probably as good a time as any. It came after the close of the state's 1987 fiscal year and more than three months before the beginning of a new calendar year.