The message behind the `Massachusetts Miracle'

THE debate between supporters and detractors of Gov. Michael Dukakis over who deserves the kudos for the ``Massachusetts Miracle'' underscores the adage: ``Success has a thousand fathers.'' No one contests the state's success in spurring economic growth, reducing unemployment, and managing resources. But debates about the relative importance of factors and actors should not obscure the underlying message here: Government is working at the state and local level to solve many urgent public-policy problems.

In Massachusetts and in 49 other states and hundreds of communities, individuals in government and in the private and nonprofit sectors are assuming responsibility and making a difference, often harnessing America's distinctive market forces to public purposes.

Consider the success of Rochester, N.Y., in the unglamorous but highly important task of assessing properties. In 1986 the city took a creative tack. It invested in laser videodiscs to create a video catalog of its 70,000 properties. It used the images during hearings with homeowners to compare property in question with neighboring lots and similar properties that have been sold. The system has helped settle disputes, improved the efficiency and consistency of assessments, and raised residents' confidence in the city's professionalism.

In California, the coastal city of Arcata came up with what ecologists call one of the most sensible solutions to solving municipal pollution. For $6.5 million, a third less than the cost of joining the state's regional sewage treatment system, Arcata refurbished its own treatment facility and built 154 acres of marshes, lagoons, and ponds to naturally cleanse waste water generated by its population of 15,000. Where many cities see merely befouled water, Arcata sees nutrient-rich liquid that can nourish plant and marine life, organisms that in turn help break down waste and clarify the water. Part of the waste water is even diverted to the city's salmon hatchery, where, mixed with seawater, it supports tiny invertebrates that are eaten by newly hatched steelhead, chinook, and coho salmon.

When Ira Jackson became chief tax collector of Massachusetts in 1983, the state had a $300 million deficit. The public had lost confidence in the integrity of its tax administration. Instead of seeking tax increases, Mr. Jackson focused the need to change the ethics and performance of taxpayers and tax collectors. By invoking a short-term amnesty for tax evaders to pay up, raising stakes for future nonpayment, and treating honest taxpayers as valued customers, the state Department of Revenue brought in more than $1.3 billion from tax evaders and $1.7 billion through increased voluntary compliance. The governor has since been forced to pare programs and adjust bookkeeping to meet a $400 million fiscal 1988 budget shortfall and must find about $230 million to balance the 1989 budget. But this comes only after additional collections since 1983, combined with the state's economic growth, allowed Mr. Dukakis to cut taxes 10 times in five years.

Such innovation, from disparate centers of energy around the nation, recall the words of Justice Louis Brandeis: ``It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory and try novel social and economic experiments.''

These experiments represent the nation's most positive force for change. This is in part because there is no viable alternative, at least in this administration: The federal coffers are spent. More important, the approach - decentralized, market-driven, and public service-led - marries those parts of United States society that observers from Adam Smith to Alexis de Tocqueville would say make us distinctly American.

In 1986, the Ford Foundation and Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government began awarding annual grants to highly innovative state and local government programs. Winners so far of the $100,000 prizes include Arcata and Rochester. Small awards programs, like the Giraffe Project based in Whidbey Island, Wash., give commendations and publicity to private individuals and groups who ``stick their necks out for change.'' However, there is room and merit for much more recognition of exceptional problem-solving.

It is important to replicate success. Rochester used its Ford Foundation award to extend video services to other city agencies. Arcata has spread the word to other cities, and the Massachusetts tax collection program begat analogues in other states and is touted as a model for the Internal Revenue Service.

What does all this imply? That state and local governments are taking the lead, sparking public-sector entrepreneurship, and fanning fires for change across the nation. The most significant effect of the Massachusetts Miracle may be to refocus citizens' sights. President Kennedy bade Americans: ``Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.'' Residents of many states have reframed the question. They're asking what they can do for their communities. What's more, they're finding answers.

Kate Smith is a senior research assistant at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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