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Editorial: Gov. Patrick presses reform

Gov. Deval Patrick’s is making headlines this month for an ambitious agenda halfway through his second term, rolling out expansive — and expensive — plans for education, transportation, school construction and other public infrastructure.

But at the same time that he’s calling for income tax increases to pay for those plans, the governor is taking a hard — and wise — look at significant reforms in other areas that will likely streamline operations and save taxpayers money.

In recent days, the Gazette has detailed two of those initiatives — a first-in-a-decade regulatory reform effort designed to streamline and improve the licensing process for thousands of professional licensees in the state. Another Patrick proposal suggests a complete revamp of the state’s public housing system in the wake of corruption cases in recent years.

The in-depth look at licensing requirements is part of larger regulatory reform at all state agencies to reduce red tape and make doing business in the state easier. The idea makes sense and is already producing results.

Patrick may have overestimated his reach when it comes to the drastic public housing reform plan he floated this month, in which the state’s 242 regional housing authorities would be consolidated into six regional housing boards.

We commend his effort to root out corruption and clean up a system that has gone unchecked for years. But critics are right to worry about what losing local control of public housing will mean for people in their communities.

These types of reforms are things good government should do, and we urge Patrick to press forward, especially in the case of regulation reform for professional licenses. Meanwhile, as the Gazette reported in its consumer section last week, many of the laws that govern the 31 professions — and 365,000 individuals and businesses — monitored by the Division of Professional Licensure are so old they’re no longer relevant. Others create barriers to entering the profession. The key is to strike the right balance between protecting public safety and health standards but not create a wall that keeps people from entering these professions.

The reforms seem able to fix the balance. The analysis has already led to changes. For example, Patrick has filed legislation to consolidate the boards of registration for barbers, cosmetologists and electrologists into a new Board of Registration of Cosmetology and Barbering to better reflect the industry.

Other plans call for eliminating the Board of Registration of Radio and Television Technicians because consumers now buy new electronics instead of repairing them, putting a cap “at reasonable levels” on workforce re-entry fees for licensed specialists.

These are good changes, but we encourage state officials to closely examine the disparities in training requirements among professions and the fees that individuals must pay to be licensed.

Does it really make sense to require a barber to train for two years when other licensed professionals in Massachusetts, including some who deal with health and safety, have far less stringent requirements?

The public housing authority changes aren’t as clear cut. Patrick said that the consolidation would save up to $10 million in annual administrative costs, while streamlining agencies and centralizing control.

But local housing authority officials said last week they were caught off guard by the governor’s proposal, the magnitude of which they say was not discussed at an annual conference last month that addressed reform. It’s surprising Patrick didn’t take more care to include those stakeholders and we encourage him and other plan supporters to take the discussion out of Boston and into communities that would be most affected.

We believe careful consideration should be undertaken to determine whether concentration of authority is the best solution. As Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, pointed out in a statement following Patrick’s announcement, consolidation hasn’t always worked. Among those are the Sex Offender Registry Board, the state drug evidence testing lab and the oversight of compounding pharmacies.

A counter proposal floated by the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials merits study. The plan would encourage regional collaboration on administrative functions in areas such as waiting lists, vacant unit turnover, procurement and capital improvements, but do so without wresting power from local boards.

It remains to be seen whether giving the governor more control over housing authorities would cure problems of patronage, or simply shift it. But few question the need that some housing authority reforms are in order.

After years of inaction, Patrick’s proposal at least moves the discussion forward.

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