That's What Happens to Reinventors of Government

December 27, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

BOSTON — Boston. -- Can a trust-fund millionaire and self-styled libertarian be a national leader in ''reinventing government''? William F. Weld, Massachusetts' first Republican governor in 20 years, is trying.

He has captured national attention for chopping spending, cutting taxes and restoring fiscal confidence in a state that had found itself, as Michael Dukakis left office, in an economic free fall with a $3 billion deficit. Up against a heavily Democratic legislature, Mr. Weld showed mettle and skill few might have expected from a Harvard and Oxford-educated scion of a patrician Massachusetts family who had never held an elective job.

While most governors sank in public esteem as they struggled to make ends meet in a deep recession and a season of voter disillusionment, Mr. Weld saw his popularity rankings soar to 70 percent. Today he's been able to cut 8,000 state employees, balance three budgets without raising taxes or borrowing, and boost Massachusetts' bond rate (from BBB to A).

Still, Governor Weld is a very different political cat from Ronald Reagan or others of the Republican Party's standard stable of ideological conservatives preaching tax cuts, spending cuts and a blind eye to the adverse effects on the poor and on cities and towns.

On the fiscal side, this libertarian shows unshakable belief that government spending and taxes both need to be reined in. But he wants government to keep its hands off people's personal behavior, too. He's adamantly for abortion rights and gay rights; indeed he's appointed many lesbians and gays to high posts and over half his Cabinet members are women.

Governor Weld can also be flexible and pragmatic. As violence mounted in the past year, he announced a change of heart and came out for gun-control measures including a ban on assault weapons. True to the baby-boom generation to which he belongs, he's long been for strong environmental controls.

The governor has been so aggressive in using state resources to stimulate economic growth in recession-stalled Massachusetts that the Wall Street Journal recently accused him of embracing something close to an industrial policy.

Whether all this sells with Republicans beyond Massachusetts -- Mr. Weld clearly has presidential interests -- remains to be seen. But there are lessons for governors of any political persuasion in Mr. Weld's foray into ''entrepreneurial'' or ''reinvented'' government -- an effort, as he puts it, to ''slim down, get faster and more customer-responsive.''

On taking office the governor told his Cabinet not to assume there's any service that can't be considered for contracting out. As a first move, he closed down nine big old state mental and public hospitals that had been functioning at 18 percent of capacity. Care of the patients was contracted out to the private sector. The hospital workers were dismayed, but the patients and their families were pleased.

Mr. Weld also moved to privatize skating rinks the state had been running, and to experiment with privatized prisons. Predictably, his moves aroused union outrage. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars saved by his contracts, plus improved service levels for the public, the heavily union-influenced legislature has just passed -- over Mr. Weld's veto -- a law severely restricting the governor's power to contract out services.

So privatization is frozen in its tracks. Governor Weld admits it was a mistake not to ''sit down with the unions first'' to discuss the privatization effort: ''You must give the public employees the right to bid. If they can underbid the private sector, they must keep the work. Unless you do that you are guilty of union-bashing and going after state employees.''

Now he'd like to reform the state's outmoded civil-service system, to do away with archaic job classifications and seniority rules and institute a system that rewards performance. But he has so alienated state employees that there's little hope for the effort unless prestigious Democrats sign on. To date, they haven't.

The governor's advisers claim his reinvention scenario is larger than privatization and shrinking the size of government. A major theme is to return responsibility to citizens -- illustrated by housing vouchers, school choice, and an upcoming ''welfare voucher'' program.

Mr. Weld also fought hard, as the legislature debated school reform, to focus authority at the school level, making principals into more independent managers. And he pressed successfully to authorize publicly funded charter schools to be run by universities, parent-teacher groups or museums.

But on his top priority, opening the door to contracting out, it's obvious now he moved too fast. By ignoring state employees and failing to give them an opportunity to match private-sector competition, Governor Weld have may won a few battles, but he lost the war.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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