Our Opinion: Education is Baker's chance for boldness

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Gov. Charlie Baker is cautious, deliberate, even-keeled — and popular. His steady-handed leadership won him re-election by a wide margin this past November.

Gov. Baker is also cautious to a fault. Boldness can also be a quality of leadership, one he rarely demonstrates. However, for reasons both economic and political, Gov. Baker is now in a better situation to act boldly than he ever has been in his tenure as governor. And he has a cause to display some needed boldness — education.

In late January, the governor offered budget proposals for the state public school districts and for the state's public colleges and universities. Both proposals acknowledged the generally accepted realities that the state's public schools are underfunded at every level. This is deplorable for a state that prides itself on how much it values education. Both proposals fell short of real solutions, largely because the Republican chief executive can't or won't acknowledge the need for significant new revenue. This is where the governor's admirable caution devolves into ideological paralysis.

The state's school districts are underfunded by about $1 billion according to a 2015 legislative commission report, and the governor's budget plan would increase the education budget by $1.1 billion over seven years. However, in the absence of a dedicated revenue stream — the governor said something vague about getting the budget under control over the last four years "will create the room that we need to fund this" — the burden of producing this extra revenue will fall on already strapped school districts, to the tune of as much as a $600 increase per student for the state's poorest districts.

Late last week, the governor proposed a funding increase of $10.9 million to $273.5 million for state universities and $5.9 million to $294.5 million for community colleges. Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams and Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield will certainly welcome any additional funds. However, a 2014 study by the Higher Education Finance Commission found that state funding for public colleges and universities fell from $12,000 to $8,000 per student since 2001 and there has been no significant revenue boost since the study came out. A bill before the Legislature would increase funding for higher education to 2001 levels.

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The governor is hamstrung by his "no new taxes" pledge from his first successful campaign for governor, although he has shot holes in his own pledge. His budget submitted late last month contains new taxes on internet sales and pharmaceutical companies, and a tax hike on real estate transactions. "I had some fun with him on that," said House Speaker Robert DeLeo, gently tweaking the Republican for his use of tax increases to balance his budget for the next fiscal year.

What the governor apparently means by "no news taxes" is no increase in the state income tax or any new sweeping tax initiative However, this is what he and the Legislature must consider if they are to raise the raise the revenue for the state's needs, education and infrastructure foremost among them, rather than nickel-and-dime around the fringes. This could be coupled with repeals or reductions of recent nuisance taxes and fee hikes, creating a system that is both more predictable and more equitable.

This will require boldness — and for the governor the time is ripe.

By measurements such as low unemployment, solid tax revenue and strong consumer confidence, Massachusetts is doing well economically. The time to explore and institute ambitious economic programs is when the economy is strong, as the inevitable downturn will require the state to retrench.

Having just won re-election to another four-year term, the governor doesn't have to concern himself about the potential wrath of voters. The political hard-right — which comprise a percentage of the roughly 500,000 registered Republicans in a state with 4.5 million registered voters — can harass the governor by running fringe candidates against him and blocking his choice for party chairman, but they can't really harm him. Mr. Baker doesn't need them — he needs the roughly 2.5 million unenrolled voters who get him elected. Certainly many would protest an ambitious tax hike scheme, but Mr. Baker doesn't have to worry about an another election campaign until 2022 — assuming there is another election campaign. Mike Dukakis is the last Massachusetts to run for a third term and the current governor may be planning a return to the private sector in three years.

So, governor, be bold, and we urge the same of lawmakers. Our students and schools require it, and there is no point in waiting for a better moment. That moment has arrived.


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