Massachusetts Needs Its Own CBO

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State Senator Jamie Eldridge is on to something.  The State House News Service recently reported that he filed a bill to bring greater transparency to the legislative process by establishing an agency similar to the Congressional Budget Office to put a concrete price tag on legislation before it is passed.  This is an idea Pioneer has long held to be of great merit – so much so that we included it in our recently published Agenda For Leadership.

While the details of the bill differ somewhat from those in our proposal, we agree with Senator Eldridge – there needs to be an independent office to perform this vital function. Pioneer believes the office must be truly independent – not an arm of the governor’s office or the legislature.  We proposed that it be run out of the Inspector General’s office.  After all, the IG is appointed by the consensus of three different constitutional officers.  To better ensure independence both in fact and in appearance, we also proposed that that the IG be given a longer term and not be subject to reappointment.

Let’s hope the legislature acts quickly on the Senator’s bill.

This is a re-posting of an Op-Ed I first wrote for the MetroWest Daily News in February of 2012:

Connaughton:  Why the Bay State Needs Its Own CBO

Why is it that in brainy Massachusetts numbers don’t always come easy to us? Well, that’s the case when the state Legislature computes them.

In a joint press release touting transportation reform in 2009, the House Speaker and Senate President claimed the consolidation of state transportation agencies would promote efficiency and cost effectiveness, “potentially saving the Commonwealth up to $6.5 billion during the next 20 years.”

Unfortunately, the public wasn’t privy to how the $6.5 billion in savings were calculated because the state Legislature conducts much of its business behind closed doors.

What’s the point of tallying results without a benchmark to compare them to? And without clear markers, it’s a stretch for voters to hold elected officials accountable.

More recently, when legislation passed late last year to allow casino gambling in the Bay State, lawmakers cited the 15,000 jobs that would be created and the $300 million in annual revenue to be added to the state’s coffers. The numbers sound impressive, but who’s to say they’re fair without an independent assessment of the accounting by someone without a horse in the race?

The skeptical among us cry foul, while most of us just shrug, too long accustomed to the way the Legislature does business.

But accepting opacity isn’t the hallmark of a vibrant democracy.

Wouldn’t it make sense for an independent watchdog, free from conflicts of interest, to bless the numbers before legislation passes so the public can be reasonably confident in the expected outcome?

On the federal level, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) fulfills this function. According to its website, the CBO “produces several statutory reports needed for the budget process. In addition, CBO is required by law to produce a cost estimate for every bill that is reported by a full committee of either House of Congress.”

That’s an independent cost estimate for every bill.

Moreover, the CBO publishes the assumptions used to generate forecasts, providing a high degree of transparency and, ultimately, accountability.

The CBO’s director is jointly appointed to a four-year renewable term by the House speaker, and the Senate president pro tempore. While a longer non-renewable term may better promote independence both in fact and appearance, transparency in operations mitigates some of the risks inherent in appointments.

The CBO wastes no time in getting its message out and the public is spared from undergoing a lengthy process to request public records. Reports are immediately available on the agency’s website to Congress and the public.

When President Obama pushed through healthcare reform in 2010, the CBO stood front and center. As changes were made to the law and more facts became known, the CBO revised estimates as needed. Whether or not you buy into Obamacare’s 10-year cost estimate of close to $1 trillion, the underlying assumptions put meat on the bone to advance a broad understanding of the debate.