THIS IS A VERY difficult year for a state legislator to be running for re-election — let alone a Senate president running for governor," says Michael Widmer, the president of the Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation. "There are nothing but difficult human and political choices." Birmingham’s advocacy of education reform offers a perfect case in point.
Seen initially as the brainchild of State Representative Mark Roosevelt, who chaired the Education Committee, education reform fell into Birmingham’s lap in 1993 just before Roosevelt left his post to make an unsuccessful run for governor against Governor William Weld. (Among other measures, the law committed incremental education-funding increases to local communities and instituted the controversial MCAS achievement-exam program.) At the time, Birmingham was chair of the Ways and Means Committee. His job was to find money to fund the expansive law, which called on the state to commit $1.3 billion over seven years just to implement the program. (In FY 2002 alone, Birmingham found $3.2 billion in education-reform funding. His advocates see this as evidence of a promise kept.) In its first year, Birmingham tangled with suburban state legislators to boost spending in underfunded urban school systems. He also took on Treasurer Joe Malone, then one of the state’s leading political figures, to fund the program: he wrangled ed reform’s inaugural shortfall of $175 million out of the lottery’s advertising budget. More recently, during the 1999 budget negotiations, Birmingham ushered through an additional $93 million in education-reform money over the objections of then-governor Paul Cellucci; the latter vetoed the move but faced humiliation when even some of his staunchest Republican allies in the legislature voted against him.
In 2000, Birmingham’s handling of education reform won praise from the likes of Democrat Michael Goldman, who is now a consultant for Robert Reich’s gubernatorial campaign. "Whereas the governor talked the talk on education, Birmingham’s reminding them he walked the walk," Goldman says. (See "Making the Rounds," News and Features, March 23, 2000.)
If Birmingham and Finneran draw a line in the sand this year, it will be over education reform. Birmingham disagrees entirely with the Speaker’s attempt to cut state spending across the board. He points to increased funding for all the state’s public schools as an achievement. "Every school system now has adequate funding thanks to my efforts," he says. "I don’t think we made these achievements to go in the opposite direction." The Senate president even goes a step further, decrying Finneran’s budget-cutting method as less than straightforward. "I think across-the-board cuts are deceptive," says Birmingham, taking aim at the idea that "all state programs are created equal." Some reflect our primary responsibilities," he asserts. "And some do not."
It just so happens that the Senate president’s work on behalf of education reform gives Birmingham-the-gubernatorial-candidate something to talk about with key, largely female swing voters. It also plays well with voters in the Route 128/495 belt. In addition, teachers compose a key block in the organized state Democratic Party. Even though state educators may be less than thrilled with every aspect of education reform — largely the controversial MCAS graduation requirement — they’re grateful for consistent funding that brings smaller class sizes. Keeping education funding level — or as close to it as possible — is the current goal of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA). "Without knowing exactly what the Senate president will do, clearly, any budget that cuts education less than 10 percent will be preferable to a cut of this magnitude," says Laura Barrett, a spokesperson for the group.
Social-services advocates hope nonetheless that Birmingham will step in to help them and that if they have to take a hit, everyone else will have to as well. "We think it’s only fair that if there’s lots of pain, the pain should be spread around," says Stephen Collins, the executive director of the Massachusetts Human Services Coalition, who hopes that Birmingham will be able to find more money through increased revenue, such as tax hikes. "We certainly don’t fault the Senate president for his defense of education funding. [But] we believe the pain should be shared a little more evenly." Still, Collins acknowledges a pertinent electoral fact: education cuts affect a larger and more-influential group of voters than cuts for social services: "The fact is that people will be more upset about cuts [in education] before they’re upset about cuts in human services unless they have a family member that’s affected by those cuts."
Satisfying both these constituencies will be a key part of Birmingham’s political calculus as budget negotiations proceed. "In just raw practical terms, if you’re going to pick a constituency to defend that has political muscle in the field, you’re going to pick the education community," says Lou DiNatale, a political analyst at UMass Boston. "Health care, mental health, welfare — they don’t cut a heavy swath through the suburban communities."
Yet when Birmingham is asked about the political aspects of his education-reform advocacy, he reacts somewhat angrily. He bristles at the notion that his strong commitment to education reform means that those regarded by many as the state’s most vulnerable citizens — the elderly, the poor, the mentally deficient — will pay the price for the state’s snazzy education law. Or that his rationale for supporting education reform is politically motivated.
"I have been extraordinarily generous to social-service programs," says Birmingham, who stresses that he started backing education reform in 1993, years before he even became president of the Senate. "To now try to view this through a lens of electoral ambitions — that would have been very long-range planning on my part." He concludes by noting that education is an investment. By funding education reform, he says, "we’ll build a stronger economy."
Right now advocates for education and other social services are trying to focus on increasing state revenue — and not on the question of whose cause should be cut. The MTA would like to see everything from a freeze of the income tax at 5.3 percent (still .55 percent less than the tax rate in 2000, prior to the November 2000 state rollback referendum), a capital-gains increase, a hike in the cigarette tax, and even a slight uptick in the sales tax. James St. George, the executive director of the Tax Equity Alliance of Massachusetts, is promoting a similar plan — along with taking $500 million apiece from the tobacco settlement and rainy-day funds. But even at his most optimistic, St. George believes the budget would still have to be cut another $200 million. Eventually, even with tax increases, Birmingham will have to be party to some difficult decisions.
Certainly all the advocates — both the human-services providers and education-reform boosters — vilify many of the tax cuts of the 1990s, which they see as contributing to the financial morass. The example most frequently cited is the 1994 capital-gains-tax cut, which made earnings on any investment held for longer than six years nontaxable. The generous cut allowed the Red Sox limited partners to walk away from the sale of the club with a tax-free $200 million. And in a recent op-ed column, St. George estimated that the capital-gains cut will cost the state $266 million in lost revenue next year.
That said, the tax cuts of the 1990s alone, if repealed, will not solve the state’s current fiscal crunch. The fact of the matter is, lawmakers must trim the budget. After excluding untouchable (at least from a political standpoint) items such as debt service and public safety, the only place left to squeeze is human services and education. The question for Birmingham is, who will bear the brunt of these cuts?
IT’S ALREADY BECOME fashionable to liken Birmingham to House Speaker George Keverian, the last legislative leader who made a play at statewide office. The current facts make it hard to avoid. In fact, the Phoenix drew the analogy last March (see "The Senator’s Dilemma," News and Features, March 22, 2001), and Woodlief mentioned it in his column on Sunday. In late 1989, Keverian orchestrated a more than $600 million increase in the state income tax — largely due to the fact that manageable deficits had grown unmanageable, to the tune of $1.1 billion. The rest is history. Keverian owned the tax hike and was trounced in the Democratic primary for state treasurer by William Galvin, who, in turn, was beaten by a Republican, Joe Malone.
Birmingham says the Keverian story doesn’t scare him. He notes that he’s situated differently now than Keverian was then. First, Birmingham points out, Massachusetts still has a rainy-day fund of $1 billion that he and other state leaders helped sock money into during the 1990s. While Finneran gets most of the credit for the rainy-day fund, Birmingham had to sign off on it as well. The size of this pot is larger than the savings of any other state except California. Second, Birmingham adds, nobody is trying to disguise the problem from the public. "There is no denial in the legislature about the depth and magnitude of the problems we face," he says. "We’re addressing it in a balanced way."
One final point distinguishes the two legislative leaders. But for the catastrophe of September 11 and the accompanying economic downturn, the state wouldn’t be in this predicament, Birmingham points out. "Everybody knows September 11 happened. It was a human tragedy. It did have economic fallout," he says, drawing a distinction between his tenure and Keverian’s. This past fall, "there was a sense that we’re in these dire economic times, not because of profligacy but because of an unpredictable collapse in revenues in things like capital gains." (While state leaders were aware that capital-gains revenue was going to drop, due, in part, to the 1994 tax cut, capital-gains revenue was so robust through much of the late ’90s that it seemed as if the significant tax cut would have no real consequence.)
Ultimately, whether or not Birmingham becomes a 2002 version of Keverian will hinge on the degree to which voters mind paying for education reform. If they see it as an important and necessary component to building a Commonwealth with a healthy economic future, Birmingham may get a pass. If, however, the simultaneous cacophonies of social-services advocates and irate taxpayers become too great, Birmingham won’t survive. The unfortunate irony in all this is that Birmingham may end up paying the price for being too virtuous. In the current Democratic field, Birmingham bears the most political scars for attempting to better state programs. Yet he finds himself outflanked on the left by Reich — which may only intensify if Birmingham is forced to cut social services to preserve education reform — and on the right by Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, who got out of the legislature in 1994, and businessman Steve Grossman. Looking at this predicament may cause Birmingham to devise a chant all his own: "The House has betrayed me. The Senate must save me." But how?
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com