This is the third installment of the Harvard Political Review‘s interview series with Massachusetts’s candidates for governor. Democrat Steve Grossman currently serves as the commonwealth’s treasurer.
Harvard Political Review: What’s your diagnosis of the current state of Massachusetts: the good, the bad, the ugly?
Steve Grossman: I’m an optimist about the future of this state, as long as we continue along a pathway to making the right investments for the future. When I talk about investments for the future, I’m fundamentally talking about how do we prepare for, and continue to succeed in, building an economy when more of our workers are working in an innovation economy … than in any other state. I think Deval Patrick during his eight years has built a very strong foundation for jobs and economic growth, and I want to build on that and extend that as governor. When people ask me, “How do you assess Deval Patrick?” I say that first, he guided the state through three of the worst years that we’ve had in seventy-five years and second-of-all, when people said, “Governor, hunker down. We’re going through a bad, bad time and you better pull in your horns,” he said, “No, I’m an optimist. I believe in the future of Massachusetts.” What was the result of that? A billion dollars of investment in life sciences, which has continued to make Massachusetts the leading place in the country for life sciences and research and development and, as some people would call it, “green technology.”
In the course of doing that, it’s created over 5,500 companies and over 80,000 jobs. If we play our cards right, we can create another 80,000 to 100,000 jobs in green technology over the next eight to 10 years. So I’m optimistic based on that foundation. I’m optimistic that, over the last year, we’ve seen the fastest rate of job growth since 2000 here in Massachusetts. So those are the things that give me a sense of optimism. A sense that we have a strong economic foundation on which to build.
What I think needs significant work are the following: number one, I believe that we must finally implement the dream and vision of creating universal [pre-kindergarten] education. The zip code in which you are born in Massachusetts should not determine the quality of the education which you receive. There are 30,000 kids who woke up this morning and didn’t have a place to go to learn. We need to end that. We need to invest over the next four years and make universal pre-K education a fact of life.
We need to build out, finally, after a lot of years of planning, the $13 billion 10-year program for transportation infrastructure, improving the quality of our public transportation system … it’s a win-win-win if you do it. If we can fully realize the plan and the dream of 21st-century transportation and infrastructure, it will get a lot of people out of their cars–automobiles generate almost 40 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. If we can build along the transportation lines a lot of multi-family housing, it will permit people to travel without using an automobile, alleviating the pressure on housing.
At an event last night I heard one of the biggest concerns I hear. I asked two college seniors, “What’s the biggest barrier to young people staying here in Massachusetts?” They both looked at me and said, “The cost of housing, and the quality of our transportation services.” The best way to deal with housing is to build more rental, multi-family units and if we can do that we can reduce the cost of housing. If we can take public land and turn it into land that’s given to developers to reduce the cost of middle-income housing, it’s going to make housing more attractive. If you couple that with improvements to our transportation, I think it’s going to make Massachusetts a much more attractive place for young professionals to live, to work, to play, and to stay.
And finally, I’m deeply concerned about student debt. Our students and their families are drowning in debt. I completely agree with Elizabeth Warren that we need to change the way we do business at the federal level. It is wrong that the federal government is making money by loaning money to students. We should reduce interest rates on loans so that the federal government is neither making money nor losing money. We should also implement a plan which I’ve talked about during this campaign to freeze fees and tuitions at all of our 29 public colleges and universities, where over 300,000 people go to school. If we can freeze fees and tuitions and make a college education more affordable–community college, four-year college, four-year university in the University of Massachusetts system–it will have a dramatic impact on the affordability of colleges and universities.
HPR: Where do you plan to find funding for the projects which you hope to create or expand during your time as governor?
SG: That’s a very good question and I think any politician who offers ideas about how to spend money without telling you where the money is going to come from isn’t being straight with the voters. There are four ways to fund priorities such as universal pre-K, freezing fees and tuitions, and other investments that we need to make. One is growing the economy more dynamically, because more growth is going to create more income, more revenue, and allow us to invest to a greater extent. My goal is to create 75,000 to 100,000 new jobs in Massachusetts each year over the next five years, and to create 50,000 new manufacturing jobs. This is advanced precision manufacturing, not my grandfather’s type of manufacturing.
Growing the economy is number one. Number two, public-private partnerships. I have said publicly that I want to create 5,000 summer internships for college students. That would cost us $25 million per year. That’s $500 a week, 10 weeks, 5,000 paid summer internships. You know hundreds of colleagues who have had internships, and they have been unpaid internships. I’m tired of unpaid internships. I don’t think unpaid internships are fair to college students. If you’re doing a good job, whether it’s at an arts organization or a for-profit business organization or research internship, it should be a paid internship. I’m going to challenge the business community to stand up to the plate and pick up half of the cost: $12.5 million paid by the state, $12.5 million paid by the businesses.
Third: saving. I said that I would put every contract out to bid as treasurer. I’ve done that. We’ve saved tens of millions of dollars, and we’re on our way to saving $100 million a year–we’re reducing the cost of our public pension fund by $100 million a year–that’s a reduction of almost one-third of the cost of our public pension funds. So if you save money, you can redeploy it in other things. Another way to save money is to reduce the cost of healthcare. I’ve said that I would lead a public conversation in every corner of Massachusetts about single-payer health insurance and how we can make single-payer health insurance work to reduce state budgets and take some of that money and put it into other places.
Finally, I’ve said that within one month of becoming governor I will issue an executive order and will suspend all new prison construction. We’re about to spend about a billion dollars over the next six or seven years to build new prisons. I’m worried about the opioid epidemic, I’m worried about all those people who are incarcerated for low-level drug offenses: they should be treated in the healthcare system, not in the criminal justice system. So if we can use some of that money to build more detox beds, or more stepdown units and more community based care, I think we can help those who are addicted get clean, get workforce training, and reclaim some of those lives.
And finally, I’m not going to take revenue off the table. If, after we do all the things that I’ve talked about, we still need additional revenue to fund our important priorities, I will not shy away from a conversation about raising revenue. And I will make absolutely certain that if we do raise revenue, we hold harmless low- and moderate-income families. There’s a fundamental principle of tax fairness. Those who earn more should pay more. Those who earn less should pay less. I’m into reforming our tax code to make it more progressive and to serve the people of Massachusetts more effectively.
HPR: In order to drive job growth among Massachusetts’s corporations and other large employers, do you plan to restructure the state’s corporate tax code?
SG: No, I don’t think so. I think that the 8 percent corporate tax rate is not a barrier. I’ve been a business owner all my life. I ran a business; I grew a business eight-fold. When I came into the treasurer’s office I took money that was sitting in banks overseas, facing a higher rate of return, and I brought that money back to Massachusetts – put almost $400 million into 54 community banks, more than one-third of the community banks. Those community banks have paid us a competitive interest rate, and they have helped generate thousands of loans worth over $1.4 billion. We don’t claim credit for every one of those loans by any means. We’ve certainly been a catalyst.
So why do I tell you this: because when I meet with business owners and I ask one question, “What are the roadblocks and barriers you face and how can we reduce or lower or eliminate those roadblocks?” they tell me, “Access to capital, more technical assistance, reduced permitting and regulation (because permitting and regulation in Massachusetts could often be a barrier to businesses coming here), improve the quality of transportation to get our workers to work, and finally reduce the cost of health insurance.” That’s why I believe that we should continue to fight for waivers at the federal level to get the federal government to finally agree that our plan to reduce the cost of health insurance for small businesses by 10 to 15 percent is the right formula, and the failure to give us waivers was a mistake. I will fight as governor to try to get those waivers back.
So I don’t think that the tax code is a barrier to businesses but I think that [some of] the roadblocks and barriers don’t make any sense … Government has to be fast. It has to be flexible. It has to be entrepreneurial. That’s how I spent my life, running an entrepreneurial business to serve the customer. If you take care of the customer, if you take care of the business community, if you reduce roadblocks and barriers, businesses will come here and create jobs.
HPR: What do you think makes you a stronger candidate than the other Democrats in the race?
SG: I’ve been running an ad on television for the past 10 days … it says, “Who do you want to be your next governor? Do you want a career prosecutor, or do you want a proven jobs creator?” And then it goes on to talk about how I built a great company into a Massachusetts success story, how I invested as treasurer in the small business banking partnership, and how as governor I’ll do the same. And it ends by saying that I’m the right choice in a tough economy.
People are worried about jobs, their economic security. [There are] 200,000 people out of work, a couple hundred thousand people working part-time, 800,000 people on food stamps. I am a proven jobs creator who does it with progressive values, and I think the people of Massachusetts want a governor who’s going to create jobs and economic opportunity, who’s going to invest in public education, and who is going to finally, after all these years, reform the way we do business in state government. You’ve been reading about this Probation [Department] scandal and the conviction of three people in Probation. I actually revolutionized hiring practices in state government when I became state treasurer. I stood up in front of the people of Massachusetts and I said very simply that for every job that’s available, we’re going to hire the best person–which we’ve done–and that hiring in the treasury is going to reflect the diverse society in which we live. 35 percent of the people whom we have hired in the Treasury have been from diverse communities; 15 percent of the people Martha Coakley has hired have been from diverse communities. If we want to build one commonwealth that levels the playing field and leaves no one behind, does it make sense to practice hiring the best people and reflecting the diversity of our society that is growing, and successfully growing, because of immigrant entrepreneurship and the growth of Massachusetts’s population of diverse communities?
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons