James P. Freeman: Baker's budget and the culture wars

   “I’m running outta change

There’s a lot of things if I could

I’d rearrange”

-- U2, “The Fly”


In his recent collection of columns, Mark Steyn offers what should be a new political maxim: “You can’t have conservative government in a liberal culture, and that’s the position the Republican Party is in.”

Rather acutely, that idea resonates in the commonwealth. Here and across the liberal hinterland “culture trumps politics,” observes Steyn. Surely Gov. Charlie Baker, no conservative but a pragmatic Republican, is discovering this with his first budget for fiscal 2016, given the howls of disapproval upon its release.

It helps explain why undue attention and undeserved amplification of cultural hubris distort and diminish attendant serious fiscal – hence, political – matters in government, particularly on Beacon Hill. It is a morally superior but overly sensitive culture that detects minutiae in certain behaviors deemed offensive that, in its sole judgement, retards greater progress, all in the name of gauzy tolerance and acceptance. It not only demands greater access to progress, but expects the costs to attain that progress be borne by others (known as “the law of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs”).

Consider what goes viral and reaches “trending” status today just in Massachusetts.

A study conducted by Northeastern University of just 27 pairs of undergraduates playing Trivial Pursuit discerned “benevolent sexism” by male participants acting chivalrous. A Massachusetts inmate continues to demand “gender reassignment” surgery be paid by taxpayers. A Lexington high school has to think twice before hosting a dance with the exclusionary theme “American Pride.” A careless – ultimately harmless – social media posting by state Rep. Timothy Whelan was immediately found to be “racist.”

Former Gov. Deval Patrick was a master technician at blurring the lines between culture and politics when he said in 2013 that national healthcare reform was a “values statement.” What exactly are the values in Patrick’s progressive legacy? Chronic, uncontrollable fiscal dipsomania in the form of high debt, deficits, unfunded pension liabilities and taxes. Not to mention a bizarre philosophical underpinning whereby government’s role is to merely expand rather than simply fix. Like transportation infrastructure. As surely commuters and Boston 2024 organizers are understanding.

Against this feverish backdrop is the chilly backdraft greeting Baker’s new budget. Today he is confronting a $768 million shortfall in the current fiscal year that ends June 30 and a projected $1.8 billion shortage in 2016, legacy gifts from Patrick. In spite of these developments, Baker calls for $1 billion in new expenditures or 3 percent in overall spending next year, including a 20 percent hike in transportation funding. Thus far, taxes and fees will not rise nor is it expected that he will draw down on the stabilization fund. He is relying upon tax amnesty, capital gains tax revenue and targeted surgical cuts in appropriations to balance the budget.

“We’re going to have a big debate with the legislature about our priorities,” Baker says.

But as an act of enduring fiscal stability, nevertheless, he must realize this budget is still dressed up like a car crash. However, it is the start of restoring discipline to the process. Everyone must realize, with his experience in financial management, that he will employ a strategic view of budgeting, relieving the commonwealth of perennial stop-gap measures.

The Health and Human Services Department budget is fast approaching one half of all state spending, which is unsustainable. Romneycare, its largest line item, was hailed in 2006 by caring classes. But it is neither universal nor cost-effective.

Which brings us to the professed faux-outrage masqueraded as constructive criticism by self-important interest groups, ironically eager for greater community, understanding and accustomed to excess; but not used to meager constraints. Today’s culture knows no bounds. And budgets limit and arrest impulses of supposed limitless possibilities, among the hallmarks and drivers of progressivism and pan-culturalism.

State aid to public school districts would actually increase by 2.4 percent (or $105 million) and to state public colleges and universities by 3.6 percent. Tell that to Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni. The budget is, she claims, “troubling for its lack of vision and absence of meaningful investments in education and other vital community services.”

As regards Hollywood – the ultimate arbiter and distributor of culture – the elimination of the state film tax credit is entirely defensible. According to the  state Department of Revenue, since 2006, it has cost the state about $118,000 per industry job created. There are 5,700 workers involved in the film and television industry.

If travel and tourism comprise the third largest industry in the commonwealth, why should the state subsidize it at all? Baker rightly reduces by $8 million its funding and cuts assistance to regional tourism councils by 90 percent. Predictably, Wendy Northcross, CEO of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce and chair of the  state Regional Tourism Council, expressed “shock” at the reductions. “Marketing works. Advertising works. To go backwards at this time doesn’t seem logical given the needs of the state.” And state Rep. Sarah Peake – whose business is an indirect beneficiary of such marketing – found the cuts “disturbing, short-sighted and misguided.”

Baker also proposes saving $4.7 million by replacing state-employed mental health crisis teams with contractors. Despite $727 million (a 1.7 percent increase) allocated for the state Department of Mental Health, the savings, in the words of a board member of a local mental health advocacy group, is “bad fiscal policy.”

Remember the federal sequester requiring 1-2 percent reductions in spending across certain bureaucracies? That was described as devastating and draconian. Today’s new austerity – barely anchored in fiscal realism – is not even as severe by comparison.

The new governor seems willing and able to address the most rudimentary structural and operational fiscal dilemmas now and, more importantly, for the future. For the precious few realists left in the commonwealth, take comfort. Baker’s budget is the beginning of a predictable miracle against untethered progressivism and unbridled cultural extravagance.

James P. Freeman is a Cape Cod-based writer