Imagine how different our national health care debate would be if there were no Congressional Budget Office. Without its widely respected assessments of the costs and benefits of each Republican proposal, we’d be adrift in a sea of competing claims. Every left- and right-leaning think tank would have its own analysis, every industry group its own numbers, and every lawmaker the chance to pick his or her preferred truth.
In other words, very much like the perennial situation here in Massachusetts, where there is no CBO-equivalent, no nonpartisan agency set up to score legislative ideas and proposals.
To get a sense for why this matters, consider the Beacon Hill standoff over how much to tax marijuana.
House and Senate negotiators seem to agree on the basic challenge. When it comes to marijuana taxes, higher tends to be better — since steeper levies not only generate more revenue but also stem overuse by making pot more expensive.
There’s a catch, though. Set the rate too high and you can end up with a thriving black market, in which buyers seek out unlicensed sellers in order to avoid the tax.
Question is: Where’s the line? House lawmakers think it’s safe to impose a 28 percent tax. Senate lawmakers disagree, pushing instead for 12 percent.
Figuring out who’s right would require some serious economic modeling, using information about marijuana taxes around the country, along with cigarette taxes, alcohol taxes, and other sin surcharges that might have encouraged black-market activity in other states or in the past.
Perfect work for a state-based CBO, if only we had one.
Another example would be the current stare-down pitting Governor Charlie Baker against the Legislature over changes to MassHealth, our state’s budget-busting Medicaid program.
In January, Baker proposed a new penalty for businesses whose workers use MassHealth rather than employer-provided insurance. The business lobby balked and eventually won some concessions from the governor, including a promise to cut MassHealth in other ways.
Trouble is, the governor can’t make the deal stick, not without the Legislature’s approval. Which has put lawmakers in tough positions, pressed by the business lobby and the governor to uphold an agreement whose details were negotiated without their input — and whose budgetary impact was estimated by Baker’s team.
Before deciding how far to bend, the Legislature might benefit from an independent analysis of how the deal would affect costs and insurance coverage across the state — ideally, from a CBO-style agency that answers directly to members.
Right now, if lawmakers want details about the cost of tax breaks, or the impact of a minimum wage increase, or the long-term benefits of early childhood education, they generally rely on executive agencies or partisan think tanks. Which means they need to ask for assistance, rather than just order up a report.
Having said all that, there certainly are risks to creating a state-based version of the CBO. Without sufficient funding and proper partisan-reducing safeguards, the agency could end up as a sinecure machine, providing little more than cushy jobs to leadership favorites.
But other states have gotten it right, notably California.
And with a few computers, a competent director, and a staff rich with budget-wonks and newly minted PhDs, a CBO for Massachusetts could help lawmakers hone their state-shaping policies.