WHEN GOVERNOR Patrick warned this week that a $600 million shortfall might force the elimination of 2,000 state jobs, the implication was that his administration will make painful choices to keep the budget balanced. And perhaps the threat of job losses might also soften up often intractable public-employee unions to the possibility of furloughs and other givebacks.
Yet the gesture would be far more credible if Patrick and the Legislature had already done everything possible to cut unnecessary government. So far, they haven’t. A year into a recession that has forced families and businesses to reevaluate their own spending, the state still maintains policies that please employee unions but waste money that could go instead to shoring up vital services.
One such wasteful policy is the so-called Pacheco law, which severely restricts the state’s ability to hire private contractors to perform public services valued at more than $500,000. The Legislature recently raised that threshold from $200,000, but it makes little sense to allow state agencies to seek cost-savings only in those public services that involve relatively small amounts of money.
The Legislature has also avoided giving cities and towns more power to hold down their employee health insurance costs. Local governments can join the state’s largest employee health insurance program, but employee unions have a veto. If local officials had free rein to join the state plan - or at least the ability to design their own local plans without negotiating over minute details with unions - cities and towns would need tens of millions of dollars less per year from the state.
To be sure, Patrick needs the authority to make emergency cuts across a broad variety of areas, including local aid. Lawmakers should give it to him, but they should also let cities and towns reduce their own costs without jeopardizing crucial positions and services.
And lawmakers should keep in mind that not every job and not every program in government is worth saving; some contribute less than others to the delivery of core services to the public and the preservation of the social-safety net. If and when Patrick does end up cutting jobs, he should eliminate some grant programs, regional offices, and other budget items in their entirety rather than staffing a wide array of initiatives at an anemic level.
So far, the governor and the Legislature have scraped together enough revenue to sustain misguided policy choices such as the Pacheco law and the union insurance veto. But as the amount of dollars coming in keeps on plunging, there should be no more room to sidestep the greater good.