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In his State of the Commonwealth address last week, Gov. Charlie Baker said his administration had reviewed "thousands of pages of outdated and obsolete regulations," reducing red tape and making it easier for businesses, nonprofits and municipalities to "do their jobs."
The statement was a reference to an all-agency effort to rescind, amend or retain more than 1,700 state regulations. The review, launched two years ago, is ongoing.
Some watching the process say it's a waste of scarce resources that’s made little real difference, while proponents say Baker's reform is making Massachusetts more friendly for business. But some analysts indicate that the reform may be more important in symbol than in substance.
The reform is "important in terms of sending signals," said Peter Ubertaccio, associate professor of political science at Stonehill College. "If you take it in combination with relatively low taxes ... very low unemployment, good headlines like GE moving to Boston, and then an ongoing process of regulatory review, all of that contributes to a positive business climate.”
Anti-regulatory sentiment is key to the Republican platform. President Trump kicked off his second week in office ordering that for every new regulation issued, "at least two prior regulations be identified for elimination." Baker, a fellow Republican who did not support Trump in the presidential race, announced his reform effort in a 2015 executive order “to reduce unnecessary regulatory burden.”
The review took up the regulations that govern secretariats, agencies, departments and other bodies under the governor’s watch. The administration said it has hosted more than 130 listening sessions and has received more than 1,000 public comments. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts, a lobbying group that seeks to influence business regulations, sent some 200 suggestions from its members.
"The administration has really moved away from the ‘gotcha' kind of mentality that often dominates the regulatory process, in which government appears to be trying to punish employers rather than trying to regulate employers to the benefit of society,” said Christopher Geehern, AIM’s executive vice president for marketing.
Geehern says changing state law is often required to achieve effective regulations. But he points to a building tax credit addressed in the regulations review, which he said highlighted that the state was being inconsistent with its application of the program.
"There's no question that having a rational and efficient regulatory system promotes economic growth," Geehern said. "It provides employers with the confidence that they need to go forward, to expand, and to hire people."
A Coalition's Concerns
Previous governors have undertaken similar regulation reforms, but Baker’s caused more than 75 organizations — from AARP Massachusetts to the state AFL-CIO to Greater Boston Legal Services — to band together and challenge the process. The coalition said Baker's proposal contained language not seen in previous regulatory reviews, including the requirement that state regulations have "no adverse affect on citizens or customers of the Commonwealth" and that they "not exceed federal requirements."
"Most regulations, by definition, adversely affect someone in exchange for benefitting society overall," the coalition wrote in a letter to Baker, "and many statutes, as enacted by the Legislature, were specifically designed and intended to exceed minimum federal regulations."
George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, which spearheaded the effort, now calls those initially outlined concerns “much ado about nothing." But he argues that the coalition's opposition may have "chastened the administration a little bit."
Bachrach questions the value of ordering the review of thousands of pages of regulations. In the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, the pages stacked up are about 4 feet high — and that's one of eight offices.
Bachrach said that while Baker was offering buyouts to state employees, he ordered an "exhausting" review process.
"Why did we do this? At a time when government has scarce resources, state agencies were forced to expend a tremendous amount of staff time doing a review that amounted to almost nothing,” Bachrach said. "That ... could've been invested in other areas for the taxpayers.
"I think there has been some modest house cleaning in terms of duplication regulations, and that's fair game, but no significant rollbacks in terms of the protection of the environment or labor regulations."
Among the regulations reviewed, approximately 650 were amended, 200 rescinded, 575 retained, and another 240 are still under consideration to be amended or rescinded, according to state records. Many of the changes were mere housekeeping -- updating regulations to reflect new laws — while others came in response to specific concerns.
The Animal Rescue League of Boston set out to update the mandatory quarantine time for animals with wounds of unknown origins. The group's director of veterinary medical services, Dr. Edward Schettino, said the science had changed: While state regulations mandated six months of quarantine, the latest data suggests only four months are necessary.
“We brought it to the state’s attention and asked them if they could make this emergency regulation change,” Schettino said. "We were very impressed with the governor, how responsive they were, how willing they were to review the science."
The change, Schettino said, frees up space at the rescue league and reduces stress in the animals.
The administration's review also brings 50 new rules, including one that authorizes mobile manicuring services.
Garrett Quinn, communications director for the office of administration and finance, which coordinated the effort, said in a statement that the process "achieved its goals of easing the Commonwealth’s regulatory burden by simplifying outdated regulations, aligning existing ones with federal requirements when appropriate and establishing a regulatory code [that] speaks with one voice."
A Bipartisan Tradition
Regulatory reform is a tradition among Massachusetts governors. Gov. William Weld’s review, which Baker participated in as cabinet secretary, had the same title -- and much of the same language -- as Baker’s. But revising the state's regulatory code is not a monopoly held by Republicans.
In 2014, former Gov. Deval Patrick announced that every one of the state’s regulations had been reviewed, with 255 of them eliminated or amended.
Greg Bialecki, who served as secretary of housing and economic development under Patrick, said the effort was useful not only for considering the external burden of regulations, but also for increasing the efficiency of government departments.
“It does produce efficiencies, and they may not be huge, but we thought it was very worthwhile the amount of time and effort we put into it,” he said.
Bialecki says Patrick -- whose career has been split between government and the private sector -- was “threading a needle” between the beneficial and burdensome aspects of regulations.
“I think that’s one of the reasons that Gov. Patrick wanted to pay attention to it,” Bialecki said. "Republicans have … a reputation for being more fiscally conservative and more restrained when it comes to government regulation. What we wanted to demonstrate was that we’re as interested in efficient and effective regulation as anybody.”
With Baker’s regulations reform, the governor — who’s nearly as popular among Democrats as he is among Republican voters -- may also be threading a needle, satisfying the business community on one hand while placating progressives by leaving certain regulations alone.
"'Less is more' as a principle sounds right, but the devil is very much in the details, and when you get into it I think you quickly discover that there are reasons for these kinds of regulations," said professor Michael Goodman, executive director of the Public Policy Center at UMass Dartmouth.
And Goodman says regulations play a "pretty small” role in the health of the state's economy.
"If I were to make a list of the biggest problems facing the commonwealth of Massachusetts, regulations would not make the top 10," he said.
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