Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Who Has Urban Solutions?

Massachusetts is one of the nation's most urban states. Just in terms of voter concentration, one would assume that the gubernatorial candidates would strongly emphasize plans and policies for our cities and suburbs.

That is largely not the case, perhaps for good reason. The housing, employment, education and crime problems Boston, Worcester and our other metropolitan area face:
  • Are very hard to improve or fix; it's far easier to say "tax cut" instead of tackling big issues.
  • Butt heads with the fairly inert legislature; helping the cities requires either taking responsibility for big expenditures or changing the home-rule and revenue-sharing systems to aid cities overtly.
  • Require giving wealthy small cities and suburban areas less to help the cities more.

Narrow Visions

We have complained for months how skeletal the candidates' issues are, particularly on their campaign Websites. There, they have full power to show their best stuff.

Kerry Healey is pretty cowardly. While she has a see-through résumé, she is lieutenant governor. We expect some meat by this time. Instead, she's keeping her bobbling head pretty low and may only pop up in the two months when she has a single Democrat as foe.

Tom Reilly
is slowly augmenting his plans. Unfortunately most parts of his Action Plan are rehashes and amplifications on a few basic points. He's not our visionary, but this can be very comforting. Voters will not fear sudden changes or disruptive legislative battles with such incremental policies.

The Chrises, Gabrieli and Christy Mihos, are not as thin as they were, but they are far from complete programs closing in on the primary. Oddly enough, Mihos is beefing up his more than Gabrieli.

Deval Patrick's was by far the earliest and most complete. We expected that the other candidates would have stolen and adapted from it. After all, his platform covers issues of common concern. Yet, his policy statements stand far above the others. We can only hope that the Democratic primary will flush out the other Dems' opinions.

In fairness, the debates have not centered on the Gordian knot of urban issues. Those are often better suited to detailed research papers and long, major speeches. Instead, we as well as the press love snappy patter, sound bytes, and slogans.

Massachusetts lives in cities, particularly when you include close suburbs. Our rural population, as shown in the census chart is very low and has been for a long time.


Rural Urban Total
1980 14,029 5,723,064 5,737,093
1990 17,651 5,998,774 6,016,425
2000 24,507 6,324,590 6,349,097
2005 (latest estimates) 25,760 6,372,983 6,398,743

From Their Own Mouths

One might think that numbers alone would drive candidates to making diagnoses and remedies for urban ills. One might think wrong.

Healey does not speak to urban issues and so far, her campaign site does not offer any related programs. She is not an urban candidate.

Mihos does touch on cities, returning more revenue sharing in his platform. His catchphrase is a Proposition One. This returns an extra $1.1 billion in state tax revenues to cities and town for economic development. He also supports some specific plans, like a $300 million bond package for Springfield to fund a high-tech research center.

Reilly sort of lumps cities in with general improvement, a rising tide lifting all boats kind of thing. Of course, Healey's generalities and Patrick's distant Justice Department service aside, Reilly is our law-and-order guy. His crime-related proposals aim primarily at cities, where the majority of people are.

Gabrieli does not specifically mention cities. He stresses more jobs through high-tech investment. It would be too easy to call this trickle down, but that seems to be the concept, or perhaps broadcast development might be fairer. We return to our high-tech glories and all is swell.

Grace Ross is looking like she and her Green-Rainbow Party won't have enough signatures to get on the ballot. It appears though that she has a great set of destinations and no way to get to any of them. She too does not call out urban programs. Specifically, with no steps, they list:
  • Abolish poverty: Create universal health care & real affordable housing
  • Decrease global warming, Increase environmental justice
  • No one is expendable: End racial discrimination
  • Support labor struggles, living wages & guaranteed income for all
  • Take back the night, Rekindle the fight for women's rights
  • Equal rights for all residents, including marriage equality
  • Bring Massachusetts troops home, Stop contributing to perpetual war
  • Stop taxing poverty, stop corporate welfare, make taxes progressive
  • Our vote is our voice. Voting rights for all people not monied interests
  • Free education centered on each one's greatest potential
Did she forget anything? However, there is that sticky issue -- no specific plans to achieve these. Also, for this post, there's nothing for cities per se.

Patrick has the most substantial program for cities, as well as in other aspects. It is honestly getting boring to cite him in detail. We are not slighting other candidates. Deval has the details and the others don't.

From his Website, his cities and towns program includes:
  • Cut the Property Tax by Reinvesting in Cities and Towns. Today there is too much reliance on local property taxes as a source of revenue for essential services. As Governor, restoring local aid to pre-2000 levels will be one of my highest budget priorities. Once restored, we should commit a fixed percentage of annual state tax receipts to direct support of local services by cities and towns. Furthermore, the state must uncap lottery disbursements to cities and towns.
  • A Fair Deal for Public Schools. In addition, we will update the chapter 70 education aid formula so that it is allocated in a manner designed to deliver the resources needed to bring all children in all schools to grade-level proficiency in key academic subjects.
  • Give Cities and Towns Flexibility to Develop New Revenue. I will support giving local communities the option to raise revenues from sources other than the property tax. In many other states, cities and towns have the authority to raise additional revenue from such sources as a reasonable local meals tax. Such local options, subject to local control, can help local communities raise the revenue they need to support the services businesses need to thrive.
  • Develop a Master Plan for Economic Growth based on Regional Strengths. Cities can and should serve as hubs for regional growth. We will develop a comprehensive plan for economic development region by region, which anticipates and plans for the impact on traffic, housing, educational, environmental and other community interests. Local officials and citizens will have an active role in developing the plan.
  • Leverage the State's Buying Power. We will develop strategies for what kinds of common services and products that municipalities need can be purchased regionally or state-wide at greater discounts, leveraging the state's buying power. Everything from office supplies to electric power to health insurance should be considered.
  • Control Health Care Costs. Leveraging government's buying power and eliminating bloated administrative bureaucracy are the two keys to lower rates and wider coverage. Among other ideas set forth in my health care plan, I will reduce the cost of prescription drugs through negotiated bulk purchases and the development of new channels of supply. Furthermore, I will invest in technology that can reduce the administrative complexity and cost of the current system.
  • Promote Predictable Budgeting. So that communities have the time necessary to make careful fiscal plans, my administration will work with the legislature to complete a final budget on time and provide estimated local aid or "cherry sheets" to municipalities by March 1st each year, 4 months before the start of the new fiscal year. We will also examine the feasibility of multi-year budgeting to encourage sound planning for the future.
  • Create Affordable Housing. We need housing for workers, not just the wealthy. We will reward communities that implement plans for construction of smaller, high-, low- and moderate-density rental and purchase properties across the Commonwealth that will enable young people, working families and the older adults to afford to live in our communities. We will support transit-oriented or "Smart Growth" initiatives and provide supplemental support to local communities for the cost of educating the children of families who live in Smart Growth communities.
  • Attract and Retain Good Jobs. Companies locate in local communities, not in states. As Governor I would go beyond boosterism - I would partner with local leaders to retain existing businesses and attract new ones. When working with a business to keep or create good jobs, local leaders will know that the Governor will find a way to make it work.
  • Improve Public Transportation. Communities can't create jobs or housing, or bring kids to school or goods to market, without a safe, dependable transportation network. As Governor I will invest in rail and subway extensions and service upgrades, including support for the Regional Transit Agencies. I will also partner with local officials to promote transit-oriented development because it will result in more vibrant local businesses, less costly infrastructure, more open space, less traffic, and a healthier lifestyle for people of all ages.
  • Make Streets Safer. Community policing is a strategy that works and I will support it. Officers will become a presence in and familiar with local communities. In addition, as Governor I will take a leadership role in coordinating local, state and federal efforts to combat crime and the threat of terrorism. If you share my vision and support these ideas, or have better ideas, join us by signing up at www.devalpatrick.com. Feel free to tell me what can be improved or modified to make these programs more effective. Remember, it's your government! Have an impact.
Some of those are happy-face goals. We would love to watch some urban-oriented debates that kick these issues around. If the other candidates can poke holes in these, expand on or refine them, or otherwise show their stuff, we'd love it.

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Andrew Varnon said...

Interesting post and something I've been thinking about lately, too. I live, however, in a decidedly rural part of this very urbanized state. I agree that candidates ought to focus on urban issues, but not at the expense of rural issues. In fact, I think that rural voters and urban voters have shared interests, especially in the area of development. It is in our interest in rural parts of the state that cities should remain strong and do a better job of absorbing growth and recycling dormant industrial space, rather than pushing development outward.

Andrew Varnon said...

Interesting post and something I've been thinking about lately, too. I live, however, in a decidedly rural part of this very urbanized state. I agree that candidates ought to focus on urban issues, but not at the expense of rural issues. In fact, I think that rural voters and urban voters have shared interests, especially in the area of development. It is in our interest in rural parts of the state that cities should remain strong and do a better job of absorbing growth and recycling dormant industrial space, rather than pushing development outward.

massmarrier said...

Just so. Our few major cities have had a long history of acting as staging grounds for the years it takes newcomers to become self-sufficient and if necessary learn a language and get a diploma or two. It is very understandable that outlying suburban and exurban areas don't want and are not equipped to handle those duties.

As in the beaver post last month, I'm always learning about the rural concerns in Massachusetts. It is likewise fascinating to hear people from all sized communities say they are being shortchanged in their share of the budget.

I'm with you in thinking the cities need to maximize their land and building use -- both for housing and industry. I see from many sources that we have lame policies and regulations that make affordable housing slow and expensive, and in some cases discourage companies from coming in and offering employment.

Sounds like jobs for a new governor and an energized, focused legislature, eh?

Andrew Varnon said...

Indeed. I think one of the traits that Deval Patrick has displayed that has many people enthusiastic about him is his ability to listen. I'm informed that he's going to make a stop in Heath in the near future. The number of voters he'll reach in Heath is tiny compared with the number of voters Christy Mihos reaches with his billboard signs or Kerry Healey reaches with her TV commercials. But going to Heath tends to make me think he's genuinely interested in hearing from every corner of the state.