Bottom line: Taxpayers can’t afford government

Until last week, Beacon Hill had been for the past few months largely devoid of activity that could constitute the management of state government.

Appointing a U.S. senator is great and all – some people make money on it, some do it in a manner that results in what they concede are ticked-off members of their own party – and running for office is also terrific fun, but sooner or later it comes time to balance the books.

The melee over the appointment of an interim senator, and subsequent bumbling around how to expedite said appointment, was really more about federal policy. Everybody writes a bad law now and again. Nothing to feel bad about. These are, after all, the folks who brought you the Mass. Turnpike Authority, and now are taking it away, a candy-from-a-baby move that has not aroused populist uprisings. 

After speeding the interim appointment last month, the Legislature last week quietly looked to delay for three months implementation of the lobbyist regulation components in the much-publicized ethics reform. Part of this effort, which Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law on Friday, was due to the widely held sentiment in the besieged legislative advocacy community that this law is a very bad law indeed: onerous, confusing, way too broad. For example, one expert made the point that forcing lobbyists to declare their positions on individual bites of legislation could prove problematic if the bill changes through amendments – which, as we’ve seen, occasionally happens. 

Why lawmakers waited until the effective date of the new rules, when much of the last two months should have been available for such changes, was mystifying, and no one really came forth with a cogent reason. 

There were reasons aplenty offered on a different front Friday, when the season of whimsy on the Hill ended with abrupt punctuation as the governor revealed a $243 million shortfall in last month’s tax collections, leaving the state with a $212 million budget problem three months into the fiscal year. This, despite a 25-percent increase in the state sales tax and a whole crate of other new taxes, which clearly have failed to fill the maw between revenues and prescribed spending. 

Patrick was as upbeat as one could be at a time when peeling gold leaf off the Golden Dome or offering Dave Letterman pictures-for-cash appear viable options. The governor sees percolation in the private sector, sustained pain in the public sector, with revenues by nature lagging recovery by months and months. 

“I think people would like to know when they’re going to come to that light,” he said Friday, getting all poltergeisty for a second while describing the long, dingy fiscal tunnel in which the residents of the Commonwealth find themselves. “I’m not sure, but I know it’s there. I can see it.”

The fresh red ink flooding the fiscal 2010 operating budget is going to drown already scaled-back areas of state service. The notion of veto overrides, viable just a few weeks ago as lawmakers played wait-and-see on the revenue trends, now produces rueful laughter. 

“People internally and externally have to reassess the business of government,” House Ways and Means chair Charles Murphy said Friday. Revenues, he said, “are going down, and they’re not coming back anytime soon.”

Patrick will ask for, and probably receive, authority from lawmakers to swing his budget axe outside the executive branch at some point in the near future. And the governor will have to continue trying to recast his image to the electorate as someone who helped pull state government back from the precipice, rather than the pioneer who lifted it to the top of the mountain.

In the Legislature, the budget mandarins are, for the time being, in lockstep on this: no more new taxes. Murphy: “I think we’re going to have to make do with what we’ve got.” Senate side’s Steven Panagiotakos: “Whatever we have, we’re going to live with it.”

Administration officials are careful to remind that the economic meltdown is global, and that Massachusetts is doing better than some other states. That doesn’t change the reality that this state is not doing well. Municipalities could see more cuts in their aid. Patrick called additional state layoffs “very likely,” and said again that he was cognizant of the impact reductions in public services have on human lives, and the occasional zoo animal.

The ever-sinking bottom line now rests at this, borne out by the simple arithmetic that seems to lower expectations monthly: The taxpayers can’t afford their government.