In first State of the Commonwealth, Baker sticks with the basics
GOV. CHARLIE BAKER, who took a decidedly workaday approach to his first year in office, favoring a head-down focus on the basics of government over a sweeping vision for Massachusetts, peered ahead in his first State of the Commonwealth address – and promised more of the same.
The well-heeled MBA with a nuts-and-bolts bearing offered no big new initiatives, vowing to stick with his first-year attention to details, whether it is fixing the creaky MBTA, reducing waiting times at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, or getting the troubled Health Connector back in shape.
The administration will stay “focused on the blocking and tackling of government,” said Baker. “It’s where we can have the most impact on peoples’ everyday lives, and it’s what people care most about.”
Baker identified energy, the ongoing opioid crisis, and charter school expansion as three big legislative priorities in the new year.
As for other renewable energy sources, Baker said he wants to continue to support the state’s growing solar industry, “but not at prices two to three times more than every other option.” He said some wind energy options are already competitively priced and said the state should embrace offshore wind technology if advances make it competitive.
He hammered away at the opioid epidemic, an issue he has devoted considerable time to, which Baker said is claiming four lives every day in the state. “This is a real human tragedy,” he said. “Moms, dads, brothers, sisters and friends all tell hauntingly similar stories.”
Baker called out the state’s medical community, saying those prescribing opioids painkillers “are far too casual about the addictive consequences of these medications.”
Baker filed a bill last year that would allow hospitals to involuntarily hold patients for up to 72 hours who arrive in emergency rooms with overdoses. It would also limit an initial opioid prescription to three days.
A version of the bill passed earlier this month by the House stripped out the involuntary hold provision. It also extended the length of first-time prescriptions from three days to seven days. A Senate bill passed in October focused heavily on prevention and education measures.
A House-Senate conference committee is now working to come up with a bill that can draw broad support.
“Let’s get this done,” said Baker.
“These are families that can’t afford to move, and they can’t afford to send their kids to private schools,” he said. “This is their chance – and it’s a good one.” He said parents who are unable to access charter schools “cry when they talk to me about the hopes and dreams they have for their children, and as a parent, I feel their pain.”
Baker, who previously sought to end the state’s expensive film tax credit program, appeared to throw in the towel on that goal, saying the administration would be “filing legislation that makes a modest adjustment” to the program.
The tax credit is a favored initiative of House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a point Baker underscored in his speech before a packed crowd in the House chamber. “We respect the Legislature’s desire to retain the credit,” Baker said. Turning from his spot at the rostrum to DeLeo, seated behind him, he added, “Mr. Speaker, message delivered.”
Baker offered few hints about what he’ll propose next week when he unveils his budget plan for 2017, but said it will include no new taxes or fees and will return some money to the state’s rainy day fund.
Baker made it a point of pride to acknowledge the lack fireworks in his first year. “As the administration ends its first year in office, some have lamented how boring we are,” he said. “I must admit, that makes me smile. No fights. No yelling. No partisan scrums.”
Along with thanking the heavily Democratic Legislature for “putting partisanship aside” to face problems, Baker thanked state workers, praised public sector unions for their cooperation in reducing the state workforce headcount, and singled out the union representing social workers in the Department of Children of Families for working with the administration on reforms to the agency.
“When you consider Sam Brownback in Kansas and Scott Walker in Wisconsin, this is not the national Republican governor profile,” said UMass Boston political science professor Maurice Cunningham, referring to Republican governors who have slashed state government and gone after public sector unions.
It is also not the profile Baker himself cut in his unsuccessful 2010 run for governor, when his vow to unilaterally eliminate 5,000 state jobs positioned him as a partisan, small-government Republican.
Baker’s first-year effort to adopt a practical, non-ideological approach to many issues fits with his fix-it focus – and is a good survival strategy in an overwhelmingly Democratic state.
“He’s not a soaring rhetoric type of guy. He is, to use his term, sticking to the blocking and tackling,” said Cunningham.With polls showing him with sky-high approval numbers, it’s an approach that seems to be working. If a doctor’s creed is, first do no harm, Baker seems to be hewing to the mechanic’s corollary: If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.