The Boston Globe
Monday, March 13, 2000

Big money for the Big Dig
By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist

There is no putting a shine on the news about the Big Dig's latest cost overrun. The most expensive public works project in America will come in, it is now estimated, at $12.2 billion, maybe more.

Everyone always knew it would cost a king's ransom to build an eight-lane underground highway through the middle of downtown Boston. But the price tag is now 13 percent higher than the $10.8 billion budget state officials going back to 1997 had sworn was chiseled in granite.

It is 17 percent higher than the $10.4 billion budget they were swearing to in 1996.

And 58 percent higher than the $7.7 billion budget they were swearing to in 1994.

And 91 percent higher than the $6.4 billion budget they were sure of in 1993.

And 110 percent higher than the $5.8 billion budget they were comfortable with in 1992.

And 144 percent higher than the $5 billion budget that was in place when the Weld-Cellucci administration came to office in 1991.

No, you can't put a shine on a project whose bottom line has skyrocketed 144 percent in nine years. But you can put it in context.

In 1987, the Massachusetts state budget hit a new milestone: Beacon Hill spent more than $10 billion. This year it will pass $21 billion. That makes an increase of 110 percent in 13 years -- far steeper than the Big Dig. After all, James Kerasiotes, the state's transportation czar, does not spend his entire budget every 12 months.

Moreover, never in all that time has Beacon Hill managed to stay within its budget for even a single year. And only once has it managed to actually trim spending from one year to the next. If the Big Dig has a problem with budgeting, it is far from alone.

When news of the price spike broke, Senate President Tom Birmingham witheringly urged Governor Cellucci to "demonstrate some leadership." He also suggested that he didn't trust the governor's judgment. "We're putting the administration on a short leash," he said. Last week, he and House Speaker Tom Finneran ordered up a hearing on the Central Artery project's finances. In the course of the hours-long session, Kerasiotes and the project managers were repeatedly flayed for their fiscal failings.

Again, some context:

It was just five months ago that Birmingham and Finneran were starring in a comic opera of budgetary incompetence. For days, weeks, months, the two of them tried and failed to finalize the state budget for fiscal 2000. Cellucci had submitted his budget proposals to the Legislature in January, but the speaker and the Senate president couldn't manage to get a final spending document back to him until Nov. 11. By that point, fiscal 2000 was more than one-third over.

Nobody is happy about the latest jump in the Big Dig's grand total, and the intense public scrutiny the new numbers are receiving is to the good. But it is also good to point out that covering the increase is not going to put Massachusetts in danger of a budget meltdown.

That is because the commonwealth has more funds than it knows how to spend. A late-December headline on an Associated Press story summed up the situation nicely: "Bay State awash in $$ for a rainy day."

"With tax dollars gushing in to state coffers because of the booming economy," the AP's Martin Finucane wrote, "the state has now piled up mountains of money in trust funds." The official "rainy day" account is bursting with $1.4 billion, but that is only for starters. Among the other pots of cash the state has buried here and there are $1.8 billion in the unemployment insurance account, $131 million in surplus welfare money, and $125 million in a rarely touched medical security trust fund. All told, there is a pool of more than $3.5 billion, and state officials, as the Globe reported last month, "expect ... to push that number over the $4 billion mark by June 30."

As if all that wasn't enough, the cities and towns of Massachusetts are sitting on stashes of their own. Since 1992, local reserve funds have ballooned from $166 million to nearly $1 billion.

And there are still more funds on the way -- the state's $8 billion share of the tobacco settlement. No wonder Administration and Finance Secretary Andrew Natsios says, "We're swimming in money."

Even that understates the case. The Revenue Department announced the other day that tax collections are once again going to set a new record, just as they have done every year since 1990.

With so many billions in unencumbered cash available, there is no need to resort to new debt to meet the Big Dig overrun. Nor is there any need to reimpose a fee on driver's license renewals or to scrap plans to roll back the state income tax to its traditional rate, 5 percent.

These economic good times won't last forever, of course. That is why the worst way to use these billions is to spend them on new budget items that would have to be funded anew each year. Far better to tap these surpluses to finish the Central Artery and to give Bay Staters the tax relief they have been waiting for ever since the income tax was "temporarily" raised 11 years ago. That will still leave billions in place with which to meet the next recession. Or the next Big Dig surprise.

Jeff Jacoby is a Globe columnist.

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