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The Governor’s race | Back Stories

Patrick’s reform record scrutinized from all sides

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / September 19, 2010

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At a ceremony in Springfield last summer, Governor Deval Patrick signed a sweeping transportation bill into law that eliminated the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and simplified an array of bureaucracies, a signature victory for a leader who had staked his reputation on remaking Beacon Hill.

It was, Patrick said, a “new era’’ of “meaningful, long-lasting reforms.’’

A year later, the governor points to a meaningful payoff: The overhaul, he says, has helped avert a $250 million payment that Wall Street had been demanding because of the Turnpike Authority’s shaky credit.

But the new law was not the main reason investors backed off, according to two credit analysts. They point instead to a sales tax increase, also signed by Patrick last summer, that devoted $100 million a year to paying off Turnpike Authority debts.

“At the end of the day, the turnpike needed a certain amount of money,’’ said Mike McDermott, an analyst with Fitch Ratings, whose bond rating upgrade helped the state avoid the payment.

The divergent views of that single aspect of Patrick’s agenda underscore a question voters will be weighing in the closing weeks of the governor’s race: Has he delivered the sweeping changes to state government that he trumpets on the campaign trail?

Patrick, over nearly four years in office, has steered the state through a number of high-profile changes in the way it does business. Aside from transportation, Patrick has signed or implemented overhauls of laws on ethics, pensions, criminal records, detail pay and education stipends for police, auto insurance, municipal health care, charter schools, and others.

Patrick and his supporters say no governor has made so much progress taking on the entrenched political culture of Massachusetts, pointing to regular labor protests as evidence that he has taken on powerful constituencies.

Steve Crosby, dean of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said Patrick deserves credit for taking on police details at construction sites and education incentives for law enforcement.

“That’s threatening the police unions, the public safety unions, and most governors wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot poll,’’ said Crosby, who is neutral in the race. “That takes a lot of nerve, a lot of courage.’’

But where the governor and his backers see bold progress, others see mixed results, a menu of reforms that are incomplete, insufficient, or overstated.

In some cases, events outside the administration’s control have all but demanded action; above all, the budget crunch brought on by recession. In others, it is too early to tell the ultimate significance of the changes.

“Reform has not been the administration’s first instinct,’’ said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed watchdog often consulted by lawmakers and the administration. “He does deserve some credit for doing some reforms, though in some cases he’s been dragged kicking and screaming, and others have been untouched.’’

In some instances, including efforts to rein in the state pension system and the high cost of health care for municipal employees, Patrick has taken initial steps, further than his predecessors dared, but not gone nearly as far as many believe is necessary. On others, including the expansion of charter schools and tightening of ethics laws, he has initiated major change, but with circumstances — the promise of federal dollars, political scandals in the Democratic Party — serving as a catalyst.

Allowing civilians to direct traffic at some state construction sites, instead of more costly police officers, has saved about $15 million over two years, the administration says. But other promised savings under Patrick’s reform efforts — including reduced auto insurance rates and a less expensive transportation payroll — are subject to debate or remain unsettled.

Patrick, in a recent interview, acknowledged that “there’s some unfinished business,’’ and that events and media attention helped move his legislative agenda. But he argued that he has fought hard for and earned his accomplishments.

“Some of these things have been talked about for decades and nobody has been able to get them done before this administration,’’ Patrick said. “We got them done. One of the things I’m learning about politics is that you’ve got to seize the moment.’’

Auto insurance
Patrick ran for governor in 2006 as an enemy of Beacon Hill culture, calling it “one of neglect and inaction, where politics is more important than governing.’’

He took the oath of office in 2007 amid high expectations, telling thousands gathered outside the State House on a mild January day that he would rebuild the mythical “city on the hill.’’

Patrick scored a few major legislative victories early in his term, notably a bill to invest $1 billion in the biotech industry and the closure of corporate tax loopholes, but a series of political missteps slowed his agenda.

One early change came in the state’s auto insurance market, which was highly regulated and, critics said, resulted in higher prices for consumers. Patrick’s Insurance Division gave insurers more authority to set their own rates. The change encouraged 11 insurers to join the market.

An administration study estimated that the move saved drivers $270 million during the first year. But rates had already been declining, largely because drivers were making fewer claims, which in turn cut insurers’ costs. A report from Attorney General Martha Coakley, who opposed Patrick’s plan, said customers would have saved an additional $100 million or more under the old system.

Nonnie Burnes, who pushed for the changes as Patrick’s insurance commissioner, said it is impossible to know how much drivers would have saved had the state done nothing.

“What was more important to me is that individuals were able to save a lot of money,’’ Burnes said.

Meanwhile, transportation, one of the toughest problems Patrick was facing, was left on the back burner, despite promises of swift action.

A report by a state commission issued before Patrick’s inauguration highlighted decades of neglect of rails, roads, and bridges, and estimated a need for an additional $19 billion over two decades. When panel members, in September 2007, released the second volume of their report, which included detailed suggestions for reforms and taxes to fund transportation upgrades, Patrick’s priorities were elsewhere, announcing support for casino gambling on the same day.

“They had no response,’’ said Widmer, a member of the panel. The administration, he said, was “struggling behind the scenes.’’

The administration floated plans to abolish the unpopular Turnpike Authority, but without submitting a detailed bill, as transportation agencies sunk deeper into debt and potential toll increases loomed.

The Senate, in late 2008, unveiled its own bill. Patrick later filed his legislation, and helped push final passage in 2009, insisting that unions not get automatic salary increases advocated by allies in the Legislature.

Amid a furious debate about whether to raise the gas tax, increase tolls, or boost the sales tax rate to raise revenue, lawmakers chose the latter. Patrick then threatened to veto the sales tax unless the Legislature passed overhauls of transportation, pension, and ethics laws. The transportation bill became law in November.

Patrick’s transportation secretary, Jeffrey B. Mullan, said combining several agencies into one Department of Transportation — akin to what past state leaders had attempted — has already saved tens of millions of dollars.

Mullan points to, among other things, $9.5 million in annual snow and ice removal savings; $8.9 million in payroll reductions, although that includes MBTA layoffs that began before the bill passed; and $38 million a year in debt payments, though the sales tax increase helped prevent higher borrowing costs.

“Nobody can tell me that the governor didn’t lead the way on transportation reform,’’ Mullan said.

Others say it’s too early to judge the bill’s significance.

“They talked that they’re going to save a lot of money, but I just haven’t seen it yet,’’ Alan LeBovidge, former executive director of Turnpike Authority and Patrick appointee.

The biggest savings directly resulting from the consolidation, $31 million a year in health costs for T employees, are set to begin next year after labor agreements expire, but could be nullified if a union court challenge succeeds. Other key issues remain unresolved, as Mullan negotiates contracts with multiple unions.

“That’s real money,’’ Patrick said of the savings. “I hear folks tell me all the time, ‘Oh flaggers, no big deal. You only save — whatever it was — $15 million.’ Well you know what? If we were wasting $15 million, it would be wrong.’’

Charter schools
Patrick’s agenda on charter schools has followed another journey, as the governor, initially skeptical, became a champion, after a change in national policy.

When he ran in 2006, he spoke ambivalently about charters, saying they were short-changing traditional public schools, the position taken by teachers unions, a key ally.

Once in office, Patrick remained publicly unconvinced, saying in January 2009 that a push by advocates to lift the statewide cap on the number of allowable charter schools was “a total red herring,’’ because some school districts still had room under the cap to approve new ones. But he soon gave some ground, offering a plan with a moderate increase in the number of charter seats allowed. (Behind the scenes, aides feared the political implications of appearing hostile to charters, e-mails showed.)

After President Obama’s election, support for charter schools became an important requirement for states looking for a piece of the $4.35 billion in grant funding from a federal program called Race to the Top.

“Talk about cover,’’ said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, which had been documenting advances in student achievement at charters.

In July 2009, Patrick followed with a proposal to double the number of allowable charter school seats in the state’s worst-performing districts.

Patrick, who has denied the prospect of federal money prompted his shift, said he was reluctant to raise the cap until he was certain there would be enough innovative charter operators in needy urban areas. He said he remains concerned that the state’s school funding formula does not treat charter schools and traditional schools equitably, an issue he still plans to tackle.

“We couldn’t wait for that,’’ he said. “We just needed to move.’’

Ethics rules
Outside events also gave a boost to Patrick’s successful push for new ethics laws, which toughened penalties for bribery, tightened lobbying rules, and banned public officials from accepting valuable gifts.

The key recommendations came from a panel appointed by Patrick in 2008, after Dianne Wilkerson, then a state senator, was caught on video stuffing bribe money in her bra and then-House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi was under a corruption investigation. (DiMasi, charged federally in June 2009, awaits trial.)

Public outrage at Beacon Hill was growing, and many were demanding action. But Patrick said in the interview that the controversies could have just as easily come and gone without a meaningful response.

“You think that was the first ethics scandal on Beacon Hill? Nobody else moved anything or even tried for that matter,’’ Patrick said. “If we hadn’t seized the moment, then you or somebody else at your newspaper would be talking about how we hadn’t figured out politics in Massachusetts. . . . So cut us a little slack here, will you please?’’

The anger stoked by the scandals resonated in part because of festering outrage over abuses of the state’s pension system, which were receiving renewed publicity, including from a series of Globe stories.

Patrick himself faced criticism at the time for naming a political supporter to a $175,000-a-year state position.

The pension bill that Patrick signed in June 2009 eliminated many loopholes. Critics of state pension rules applauded, but noted that the law only curbed the most egregious abuses and deferred action on more sweeping, money-saving changes.

Patrick said it was only a first step. Early this year, he filed a bill tackling harder problems — such as increasing the retirement age — but only after his Republican rival Charles D. Baker released similar recommendations. After initial publicity, Patrick’s bill received little attention, though some changes — including a $126,000 cap on annual retirement benefits — passed in July.

Municipal insurance
One area where critics say Patrick has fallen short is municipal health insurance, which has broad impact on the budgets of cities and towns and thus on property tax bills.

For years, municipal leaders have scrambled as the cost of generous health care plans for municipal employees, retirees, and elected officials has skyrocketed. In 2007, Patrick agreed to let cities and towns join the state’s larger, more flexible health plan, which has been more successful in keeping costs down. But there was a catch: Communities could only join the state system if 70 percent of a local union committee approved.

Largely because of that union threshold, only 20 cities and towns have joined. Those that have are saving millions. An August report by the Boston Foundation said 15 cities and towns in the program collectively saw $35.5 million in health care savings in the first year.

So far, lawmakers have resisted giving communities authority to change health plans unilaterally or join the state program. Patrick asserts that unions deserve a voice, offering to lower the approval threshold to 50 percent.

Baker says the governor, out of deference to organized labor, has been unwilling to push the Legislature hard enough.

“It’s an outrage this hasn’t been dealt with,’’ Baker said in a recent debate.

Reelection bid
Now that he has turned from governing to campaigning, Patrick has made his record the foundation of his pitch to voters.

Last summer, when he announced he would sign the ethics and transportation bills, he launched an aggressive campaign to brand his tenure, standing beside signs with the message “Delivering Landmark Reform.’’

This year, Patrick has sought to keep the reform banner aloft, trumpeting, among others, a new law on criminal records designed to make it easier for certain ex-offenders to find jobs.

“We delivered,’’ Patrick said in a debate Thursday. “Our reform record is second-to-none.’’

Polls, however, suggest many voters do not view Patrick as a reformer. In a Globe survey in June, 28 percent of respondents said he had “brought reform to Beacon Hill,’’ while 55 percent said he had not.

Patrick attributes that gap to voter anxiety in hard times, and to his failure to fully make his case. But he said that the changes he has led have been real and meaningful, and that he has not made them alone.

“I have learned that if you want to make big change, there is more to it than just pronouncing that change is coming,’’ he said. “You have to do the work with the public. You have to do the work with the agency and all of the saboteurs who are always a part of a large bureaucracy. You have to do the work with the Legislature.’’

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.