To paraphrase Nancy Pelosi, we won’t know if the new law works until we see it working.
We tend to over-discuss grand, comprehensive reform bills when they are being written and voted on, but under-discuss the bureaucratic process that is both essential to making them work and a test of whether they were well-written in the first place. That’s partly because, while players can find some general, emotional, simple handle to apply in the legislative debate – “amnesty,” for instance, or “government control of health care” – the execution of complicated reforms, in most cases, doesn’t lend itself as easily to demagoguery (the ACA’s coverage of contraception requirement being an obvious exception). It’s also because complicated legislation often produces complicated results. Some parts work, some don’t. And the hot-buttons that spark the debate live on.
This may be too complicated for a blog post, or even a column. Maybe it’s better suited to a long, boring academic article. But as I thought about it, three examples sprang to mind:
Example 1. With reports, conferences and opeds, policy wonks are now marking the 20th anniversary of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993. I wrote about it extensively at the time and in the years since, but it’s hard to give simple answers to the question of whether it was well-executed by state government or whether it worked as intended.
On execution: The legislature surprised a lot of people by keeping the act’s promises of increased funding (thanks mostly to the Clinton-era surpluses driven by capital gains revenue). An excruciating process of developing a core curriculum was enough of a success that the approach has been adopted nationally. MCAS remains controversial, but on test development and execution, I think it worked as intended.
On results: Well, Mass. kids score tops in national rankings on standardized tests, which they didn’t before ERA. The demand for charter schools keeps growing, which is a sign of success. The act’s school governance reforms (remember school councils?) turned out to be a nothing. It’s changes to teacher education didn’t have much measurable impact. There are still huge differences between school districts (though the disparity in funding has been reduced). There’s still a big achievement gap between white and minority students.
Example 2. The state’s casino legislation is now in the implementation phase. I met last week with Steve Crosby, chair of the Mass. Gaming Commission, and Foxwoods executives, and wrote a piece last Sunday about the ongoing application process in Milford. Both Crosby and the Foxwoods execs said the Legislature did a great job of writing the legislation, though it’s obviously too soon to say for certain – and anti-casino residents in Hopkinton and Holliston might disagree.
But on one key question, whether the law – with its entry fees, vetting requirements, and its division of the state into three zones for three casinos – would seduce or scare off top-class bidders, the results are positive. There’s competition for all three licenses, with deep pockets developers like Mohegan Sun, Steve Wynn and Foxwoods. Everett officials and voters have already approved an agreement with Steve Wynn. Whether whatever gets built is successful long-term in a volatile industry remains a question, but that part is the developers’ gamble, not the state’s.
Example 3. Health care reform in Massachusetts involved balancing incentives as well. The Connector Authority had to set coverage standards that would induce insurers to compete here, offering lower premiums than were available on the private market before Romneycare. They succeeded, with ample companies choosing to compete. The Legislature had to set the penalties high enough so that employers wouldn’t be tempted to drop coverage and throw their employees on to the exchange for uninsured residents. Employer coverage actually rose slightly after the law went into effect.
Did it work? You can get into a good argument about that. But if the measure is the number of people without health insurance before vs. after, 97 percent coverage is a pretty good score.
Now Obamacare faces the test of execution, and it’s a difficult one. First, the national ACA is more complicated than Obamacare, and Massachusetts started off with a higher percentage of people covered under employer health insurance. Then there are 50 governors who are supposed to be partners in a federal/state project, only a bunch of them are more interested in seeing it fail than seeing it succeed. So the “did it work” question may end up with 50 different answers. Some commenters are already declaring ACA a failure, often citing millions of employers who are allegedly dropping coverage or changing their workforce to part-time to avoid the requirement. Maybe that will prove true, but I think we’ll know with greater certainty a year from now.
Meanwhile, 20 years after Education Reform, we in Massachusetts are still arguing about MCAS and charter schools as if the matter were still before the Legislature. Folks who strongly disapprove of casinos will keep complaining even if the execution of the new law meets all its stated goals. And will we ever stop debating Obamacare? I doubt it, but I hope our children will find other things to argue about.