Boston Olympic bid is bad news for Massachusetts governor

Can Governor Baker continue to thread the needle? Reuters

Charlie Baker is the new Governor of Massachusetts and, doggone it, he likes government. Though this notion is antithetical to most elite Republican office holders, Governor Baker is firmly in the blue Massachusetts tradition of a social liberal and fiscal conservative.

Boston’s bid to host the Olympics in 2024, however, poses a significant challenge to the managerial values that helped him get elected in the first place. If the city wins hosting rights, it’s unlikely Baker will be able to fulfill many of the promises he made in the close November election.

How Baker won

Governor Baker threaded a difficult needle by winning in blue Massachusetts as a Republican when outgoing Democratic Governor Deval Patrick and his policies remained popular. Baker did so, in significant part, because his messaging – using private sector acumen to improve upon existing successes and the values of transparency and efficiency – resonated.

In the language of public administration, Governor Baker governs from the “new public management” perspective where government is best when efficiently delivering services to citizen-consumers and replicating private market practices.

His inaugural address last month punctuated these commitments. For instance, Baker said his top priority is “dealing with an immediate budget deficit … [as the] Constitution requires that the budget be balanced. No one understands that better than I do.” He promised to make Massachusetts government “as efficient, responsive and innovative as it can be,” to “hold the line on taxes [as] we’re already demanding enough from hard working people” and to “assure accountability and transparency” throughout.

Boston will have to build many new stadiums to host the Summer Games, money that will make it harder for Baker to pursue his reforms. Boston 2024

An affront to reform

The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) gave Governor Baker a surprise inauguration present when it announced last month that Boston would represent the US bid to host the Summer Games in 2024. Yet, a Boston-based Olympics would be an affront to the very values Baker promised to enshrine in government and places several of his signature commitments in jeopardy.

The governor would be wise to take note of the disconnect between key values he espoused on the campaign trail and what these Games would look like and do to the state’s finances:

Fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets. These are truly Charlie Baker’s wheelhouse, but modern Olympics diverge wildly from keeping budgets in the black. In fact, the Games’ final bill costs typically 180% more than the initial bid. Coupled with the International Olympics Committee requirement that bid locales provide key loan guarantees, taxpayers are regularly left footing much of the bill.

Bid organizers promise that this will not happen in Massachusetts. But even if one buys the notion that private interests will cover many costs, the massive investments in infrastructure required are not included in organizers’ calculations. Fiscal responsibility Baker-style? This most certainly is not.

Transparency. Governor Baker closed his inaugural address by emphasizing transparency. The Boston 2024 bid process has been anything but. Community meetings are now getting started, but a simple reading of the literature on power and political influence makes clear the difference between a “listening tour” and being at the boardroom table.

The 2024 bid went forward without any open access for all Bostonians, much less Bay State residents. Bid details have been released in piecemeal fashion. Both Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Baker seem to be directed by the 2024 organizers and not the other way around.

A transparent government does not follow the singular lead of business elites and refuse a statewide vote on a Boston Olympics. Governor Baker would therefore be wise to support a referendum on public financing of a Boston games.

Pushing out the vulnerable

Other parts of Baker’s agenda – essential elements that made him electable to moderates and those who usually vote for Democrats – are also threatened by the Games.

In his inaugural address, Governor Baker reminded citizens that he “campaigned hard in many communities of color … [because] these neighborhoods have not benefited from the economic success that has become more commonplace in other parts of our Commonwealth.”

Past Olympics have been notorious for pushing out the city’s most vulnerable citizens to make way for required housing and new venues. Promises of turning over reinvigorated areas to prior residents rarely materialize. In Boston, the city’s most vulnerable are disproportionately of color and reside in the very urban centers Baker wants to revitalize.

What’s more, the Governor compellingly campaigned to lead state government for the entire Commonwealth – not just Boston. But if Baker keeps his pledge to not raise taxes on the citizens and balance budgets, it is hard to see a path to a Boston Olympics that does not cut through the fiscal and infrastructure needs of other cities and towns in Massachusetts.

Temporary stadiums like this one proposed for Boston Commons may cost more than expected and wouldn’t last beyond the Games. Boston 2024

Other priorities will suffer

“Bostonides” – the sentiment that Boston’s needs come first at the expense of the rest of the state – is a long-time theme in Massachusetts politics and funding. A Boston Olympics would set records in accelerating this trend. Bid organizers say differently, but empirical research indicates that winning bids mean localities pay mightily. Ask the residents of England, Greece or Russia after the London, Athens and Sochi games.

Add to all this Baker’s commendable prioritization of tackling opiate addiction in Massachusetts. Priorities like this, or in education, directly compete with the massive transportation investments and other costs that would be required to host the Olympics.

The Governor himself understands that state budgeting is a zero-sum game making clear deficits will not be tolerated and “every line item (in the budget) will be looked at.”

A Boston Olympics therefore means other programs and priorities suffer when monies must be directed towards infrastructure costs, security and (likely) making up revenue shortfalls.

So while the Boston Games has some undeniable feel-good appeal, it is clear that they do not mesh with the values and goals that got Charlie Baker elected in the first place.