Grading the Baker campaign’s economic development blueprint

Yesterday the Baker/Polito campaign released a comprehensive economic development blueprint spanning a wide range of policy areas. The document provides the most intimate view yet of where Governor Baker would lead the Commonwealth. The plan makes clear that urban areas—and especially the state’s Gateway Cities—would be a major part of a potential Baker Administration’s economic development agenda. Here’s our take on the proposals the campaign has laid out.

A+ for Effort

Charlie Baker clearly cares about Gateway Cities and appreciates the important role that they play in the Commonwealth’s economy. The report articulates this by including a section specifically dedicated to the Gateway Cities and other parts of the document also include aspects of a true urban agenda. Throughout the campaign, Baker has spent considerable time in Gateway Cities and the support he is gaining from urban leaders shows that many believe that his interest in these communities runs deeper than simply collecting endorsements and votes.

B for Substance

Baker has proposed tax cuts, which means the resources available to invest in urban economic development will likely be limited. The challenge for a Baker administration then would be ensuring that available dollars are spent as strategically as possible for impact. The agenda Baker lays out hews in this direction.

Most significantly, he calls for investments that are “strategic and coordinated, not piecemeal, with clear objectives and metrics for the outcomes.” This is absolutely correct. In the past, investments have been spread thin, often for political rather than market impact. As a result, taxpayers have not gotten the return on public investment that they should and Gateway Cities have not been able to get out from under weak market conditions that deter private investment.

On the other hand, the agenda includes ideas that are unlikely to provide high return on limited dollars. For example, the strategy calls for tax-free zones. By virtue of the structure of current economic development incentives, a de facto version of these zones already exists. Volumes of research suggest this is generally an inefficient and ineffective approach to urban economic development. Tax incentives can be helpful if used in a very strategic manner, but the language in this document suggests Baker has yet to conceptualize such an approach.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the plan substantively is it doesn’t acknowledge or build upon hard work to create initiatives that move precisely in the policy direction Baker would like to lead. MassDevelopment’s new Transformative Development Fund, for example, is a spirited attempt to strategically coordinate and deploy resource and measure impact. Youth Works and Connecting Activities are programs out of the Commonwealth Corporation and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education “connecting education and work.” Leaders have spent years refining these models all the while fighting difficult state budgets that set them back. Baker does not reference these programs or pledge additional support.

C for Style

One of the aspects of Charlie Baker that leaders find appealing is his passion for solving hard problems, but in the Gateway Cities context this can be a bit counterproductive when it comes to language. Gateway Cities need to be promoted as assets. The campaign materials tend to paint them as the problem child, referring to “high need” communities and “the lowest performing schools.”

An example is the focus on the Lawrence Public School District as a model. Lawrence is an extreme instance of a Gateway City district that was woefully mismanaged. A scan of the Gateway Cities would reveal powerful examples of success in place like Brockton, Chelsea, Fall River, Fitchburg, Springfield, and most especially Revere, which has arguably done more than any urban district in the nation to achieve quality at scale. A Gateway City education plan should begin by looking at the innovative models that are working in these communities and ask what could be done to help the leaders who have worked tirelessly to put them in place bring them up to scale.

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