Sizing up Baker, Gonzalez on T, energy, environment

Forum highlighted sharp differences in approach, philosophy

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER and his Democratic challenger Jay Gonzalez have a lot in common. Baker grew up in Needham and Gonzalez lives there now. Both ran health insurance companies and also took turns heading up the state’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance – Gonzalez under former governor Deval Patrick and Baker under former governor William Weld.

But at a forum Thursday at the Museum of Science sponsored by a number of environmental organizations, it was the differences between the two candidates that were on full display, in part because of the format. The candidates appeared separately and answered the same questions they received ahead of time. The result was an informative discussion that highlighted how Baker and Gonzalez approach issues from very different perspectives.

Baker has the mindset of a manager. His focus is on how to fix problems, and he gravitates toward the nitty gritty of policy-making. As a Republican, he is very cautious about raising taxes and doesn’t believe that government programs are the answer to every problem.

Gonzalez’s primary critique of Baker is that he doesn’t think big enough. The Democrat has very ambitious plans for state government; he hasn’t put a price tag on those ambitions, but it’s a fair bet that the cost would run into many billions of dollars.

To pay for his many new initiatives, Gonzalez is proposing a tax on college endowments greater than $1 billion, a surcharge on incomes over $1 million, a carbon pricing system that would be revenue neutral except for the wealthy, and a host of other measures that would probably be felt one way or another in people’s pocketbooks.

The difference in approach of the two candidates was exemplified by their attitude toward the MBTA and whether it needs more money.

Baker, who says he sometimes feels like Ahab and the whale when it comes to his relationship with the T, said his administration has done a lot of work getting the agency back on its feet in the wake of the snowmageddon shutdown of 2015. At the forum, he specifically mentioned efforts to improve bus service and the replacement of 200,000 commuter rail ties (part of the T’s contract with Keolis Commuter Services) and nearly all of the electrified third rail on the Red and Blue lines. He said the Patrick administration deserves credit for placing an order for new Red and Orange Line cars, but his agency is doing all the track and signal work that will allow those cars to operate properly once they are delivered. He says these nuts-and-bolts efforts aren’t very sexy, but they are crucial to getting the T on track.

“I turned around a very broken health plan when I was in the private sector,” Baker said at the forum. “The T was way more broken than Harvard Pilgrim, not even close. Stephanie Pollack , Secretary Pollack, put it really well when she said that if you just give the T more money right now all it’s going to do is be like a bathtub with a big hole in the bottom. It’s just going to run right in the top and right out the bottom because it doesn’t have the musculature or the capacity to actually do the work that people would like to see it do.”

He returned to the same theme in his closing statement. “Just giving the MBTA more money without figuring out how to make it a lot smarter about how it does what it does and spends what it gets, honest to God, would not have accomplished much,” he said. “The biggest thing we needed to do with respect to the T was get it to the point where it could actually intelligently spend the resources that we made available to it, follow through on it, and execute on a game plan. It’s finally getting to the point where it can do that.”

Asked if the T still has a hole in the bottom of its tub, Baker didn’t really answer. But he did say he would make sure the agency has enough resources to carry out its $8.1 billion capital spending plan for the next five years. “If we need more people, if we need more resources, to hit that five-year plan, we will find them,” he said.

Gonzalez didn’t criticize the work the T has been doing, but he says it needs to do a lot more. “This is a huge difference between Gov. Baker and myself. We absolutely need to invest more in the T. Absolutely. Any rational person who looks at the T’s finances cannot conclude otherwise,” he said.

He offers few specifics on how much he would invest or how the money would be spent other than saying he generally wants to improve existing service, expand service, and electrify all the trains, which would be hugely expensive. Unlike the Baker administration, which is expected to raise fares next year, Gonzalez said he “will not ask riders to pay higher fares for worse service, disabled trains.”

Here is what Gonzalez and Baker had to say about a host of other issues:

Do we need new gas pipeline infrastructure?

This is a very controversial issue. Most of the region’s energy establishment (the regional power grid operator, utilities, etc.) think additional gas pipeline capacity is needed to forestall brownouts during winter months when gas sometimes is in short supply. Environmental groups view building additional pipeline capacity as a third-rail issue; they say it would continue the state’s dependence on natural gas and hamper efforts to address climate change.

Baker, whose administration in the past has supported the construction of another gas pipeline into the region, chose to answer the question by trumpeting the state’s efforts to develop alternatives to natural gas-produced electricity. He mentioned importing more hydroelectricity from Canada, developing offshore wind power, and investing in energy storage.

The governor said the key concern about alternatives to natural gas has been their price, but he said that concern has been allayed by the bid the state recently accepted from Vineyard Wind for 800 megawatts of offshore wind power. “We are now over that hump to some extent,” Baker said, noting that offshore wind, onshore wind, and hydroelectricity are price competitive.

As for pipelines, Baker said, his administration’s chief focus would be on the modernization and safety of the existing pipeline system. “That’s going to be our focus in the immediate future,” he said.

Asked if that meant he no longer favored a new pipeline, the governor said: “I really think the focus for the next few years needs to be on the existing infrastructure and ensuring that it’s safe. That’s going to be our focus.”

Asked for further clarification, he repeated: “That’s going to be our focus.”

Gonzalez fully embraces the position of the state’s environmental advocates. “I will do everything in my power to stop the expansion of natural gas pipeline infrastructure in this state. We don’t need it. It just will further our dependence on fossil fuels,” he said. “We’re having a hard enough time staying on top of the infrastructure we have.”

Last winter, during an extreme cold snap, many of the region’s power plants came dangerously close to running out of natural gas. Many of the plants shifted to running on oil, and the region burned close to 2 million barrels of oil over a 15-day period, more than was burned in all of 2017 and 2016 combined. Oil generates more greenhouse gas emissions than natural gas.

Gonzalez brushes aside concerns about brownouts and other negative consequences. “We’re at a decision point. One way we can deal with the energy need we have is to build more gas pipeline infrastructure, which won’t happen just like that. It will take a few years. Or we can invest with a sense of urgency and aggressiveness in renewable energy resources,” he said. “I will not deal with the short-term pressures we face by pursuing a long-term solution that’s a long-term problem.”

How will you fund the state’s environmental agencies?

The last time Baker ran for office he promised to devote 1 percent of the budget to the state’s environmental agencies, but he didn’t follow through.

“I apologize for not delivering on my promise,” he said. “The only caveat I could offer, well, I’m not going to go there. I apologize for not delivering on my commitment. I don’t like not delivering on my commitments.”

He said the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Conservation and Recreation fared well in the fiscal 2019 budget, but will need more personnel in the future.

Gonzalez said he is committed to the 1 percent goal even though the Patrick administration didn’t reach that target when he was its budget chief. “One big difference between then and now is Gov. Baker is governing during a sustained period of economic growth and Gov. Patrick was governing during one of the worst fiscal crises the state had faced in decades. The context is very different,” Gonzalez  said.

Gonzalez said his commitment to environmental spending reflects a difference of philosophy between him and the governor. “It was an end for him, a goal, to be able to say he reduced staff in state government. Smaller government, right out of the Republican playbook, is part of what he is about,” Gonzalez said. “I believe government is our instrument, not our enemy. It’s a vehicle to empower each other and support each other and protect each other. The environmental agencies are a key example of protecting us and our natural assets. And we are failing at that right now.”

Should the Wheelabrator trash incinerator in Saugus have been given an extension?

Baker said the Department of Environmental Protection approved the extension because it was the best option it had. Rejecting the extension, he said, would have just meant more of the state’s waste would have to be shipped to landfills out of state. In addition, Wheelabrator agreed to make a $2.5 million contribution to mitigate the environmental impact of a nearby landfill.

Gonzalez said he would move to shut down the Wheelabrator plant, but didn’t address what would happen to the waste it is handling now. Like Baker, Gonzalez said the state needs to do a better job recycling and disposing of trash. Gonzalez suggested the state may need to bring some consistency to the way cities and towns handle their waste. “We can’t afford it to be ad hoc,” he said.

Are utility incentives out of whack?

Baker described the current electricity industry as a top-down, command-and-control system with the operator of the region’s power grid at the top and utilities underneath. He indicated he would like to see the introduction of smart metering technology that would allow time-of-day pricing and give residents incentives to control how and when they use electricity. Baker said the transition to smart meters would be complicated and costly (about $1 billion), but the benefits could be profound in disrupting the existing utility-controlled system. “We’re going to push it pretty hard,” he said.

Where Baker waxes philosophically about tinkering with the utility business, Gonzalez talks in sound bites. “The utilities have outsized influence in preserving the system as it exists,” he said. “We’re going to flip the dynamic if I’m governor. We’re going to make sure that the public interest is driving our energy policy, not the utilities’ interest.”

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Gonzalez was also critical of legislation that allowed the state’s utilities to both evaluate the bids for hydroelectricity and offshore wind and be part of the bidding groups as well. “They had every seat at the table,” he said. “The driver of the decision-making around this should be the public. Will change it.”

Bruce Mohl, the author of this report, moderated the forum hosted by the environmental groups.