While we won't have George W. Bush to bash for the national trials that await us in 2009, we can learn important lessons from his past failings. Take Hurricane Katrina, for example, when a lack of leadership helped turn a tragedy into a colossal fiasco.
In the coming year, an economic storm will batter the Commonwealth, along with the rest of the country. Governor Deval Patrick and other officials cannot prevent its arrival, but their guidance could determine the extent of the damage.
The staggering economy will drain revenue from state coffers, but we certainly don't think that now is the time for a tax increase (with the possible exception of the gas tax, which may prove both fiscally and environmentally prudent).
As a result, we in Massachusetts are in for tough times: shrinking agencies, laid-off teachers, and longer waits for services — when they are available at all.
We need our public officials — at the state and local levels — to be straight with us about what to expect, to prepare us so as to minimize the effects, to respond with agility to unanticipated crises (like the region's recent devastating ice storm), and to buck us up as a community to accept some share of sacrifice.
That won't come naturally to the state's notoriously schizophrenic political class, or its citizenry, both of which constantly demand more services and fewer taxes.
Nothing gets Massachusetts more riled up than an overly burdensome tax, which over the years has prompted some to toss tea crates into the harbor, and others to vote for income-tax elimination just to "send a message."
And yet we hold great expectations of the services to be provided for us — from instantly snow-plowed roads to world-class elementary schools, and of course those me-first earmarks for every pol's home district.
We also take fierce pride in our collective treatment of the unfortunate. We are not some backwater Podunk, for goodness sake, where (we imagine) they throw their mentally ill in cages and raise their children in filth and illiteracy.
More services, fewer taxes. That's the constant challenge not only to the public servants on Beacon Hill, but also in the 351 cities and towns of the Commonwealth. Those officials frequently frustrate us, occasionally impress us, and most often try any sleight-of-hand and public-relations chicanery to hide the inevitable gap between the services we want and the revenue we are willing to supply.
Our politicians can hardly be blamed for this charade — we practically demand it of our candidates. Don't agree? Consider the last two people we selected to govern us, the polar opposites of Mitt Romney and Deval Patrick. There is almost nothing similar about them, almost nothing to explain how the same electorate could choose them both. Except for this: they both vowed on the campaign trail to make a projected 10-digit budget deficit disappear, and simultaneously lower taxes (Romney by implementing the income-tax roll-back, and Patrick by easing property taxes) — all without affecting services. Both swore that they could perform this trick purely through efficiencies, consolidations, and other acts of prestidigitation.
This game we play is all well and good, and for all its flaws and idiosyncrasies seems to result in a fairly good balance of government, most of the time.
But in 2009, the revenue gap is likely to be a chasm. Already, more than $1 billion has been cut from the current fiscal year's budget, which runs through June, and another $750 million may still need to be slashed. State social services, already reduced, will be cut further, but word is spreading that some of that $750 million will come from local aid. Municipalities across the Commonwealth are already imposing hiring freezes and other cost-saving measures in anticipation. Things will only get more grim.
With Patrick preparing to release his proposed FY2010 budget later this month, political leaders at the State House are warning of local-aid cuts as deep as 10 percent. Local papers are reporting possible city layoffs from Agawam to Orleans. The Globe has reported that Boston's school department might cut its budget by 15 percent. These cuts are going to force very difficult decisions about what services to continue or eliminate.
It will be easy to react angrily, when it's your child's classroom bulging with too many students per teacher, or your road not getting repaved this spring, or the domestic-violence shelter in your town forced to shut down. Especially as the charities and not-for-profit organizations, which provide aid and comfort across all sectors of people's needs, will also find themselves less able to sustain their levels of contribution.
What we need is leadership, from Governor Patrick all the way to town administrators. We need them to be as open as possible with the decisions they make, and to call upon their constituents to face this tough time together.