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Gov. Charlie Baker has been in the corner office for nearly a year now. A quick reread of his inaugural address in January reveals many of the governor's main objectives coming into his position.
“I believe our actions will be heard in many ways, but the loudest of these actions will initially be in dealing with an immediate budget deficit, building a job-creating economy everywhere in Massachusetts, closing the achievement gap in education, confronting opiate addiction and revitalizing our urban centers,” Baker said in the address.
To address what he identified as at least a $500 million deficit, the governor set out with some cost-saving measures, including a hiring and contracting freeze.
Baker also called for, and ultimately passed, legislation authorizing early retirements for 4,500 state employees, which was supposed to save $173 million. That target fell a little short, with around 3,300 employees taking the golden handshake and saving the state an estimated $126 million.
A watchdog group announced this month a warning to legislators that a budget gap of up to $1 billion could present serious financial challenges in the next fiscal year. In a recent conversation with WBUR, Baker said last year's budget began with nearly a $1.8 billion gap that his administration and state legislators "worked pretty collaboratively" to address. He also said he hoped the state would soon move away from using its stabilization or so-called "rainy day" funds to finance its operating budget, but was not optimistic such a change could occur immediately.
Push For Expanding Charter School Cap
On the education front, the governor has come out strong for expanding the cap on charter schools, either through legislation, or through a referendum question that would be placed on next year’s ballot. That's an issue he'll continue to pursue in the new year.
Weathering MBTA's Winter Woes
One thing the governor did not anticipate when he delivered his inaugural address was the horrendous winter weather that arrived just a couple weeks after he assumed office. The governor's actions following record snowfall throughout the state played a large role in defining his first year.
“This is an unprecedented set of circumstances that we’re working our way through," Baker said amid the early-year storms. "And it has consequences for productivity, for the cost of government. It has consequences for global businesses that operate out of the [state].”
The biggest casualty of the winter was the breakdown of the public transportation system in and around Boston. Baker escaped blame for much of the MBTA breakdown, since he had just taken office. He can’t really do that going forward since he now, in essence, owns the T.
During the crisis, the governor was out front taking control of the situation. The public seemed to respond positively, because by June, a WBUR poll showed him with a 70 percent favorable rating. The T meltdown presented him with his first political challenge, dealing with a Legislature who thought they had finished dealing with transportation a couple of years ago.
To fix widespread issues at the T, the governor successfully pushed for the creation of the MBTA Financial Control Board, despite early resistance from the state Senate.
He also persuaded the Legislature to suspend the so-called “Pacheco Law,” which prohibits the privatization of the T. Unions are not happy with that decision, but the focus of their disdain has largely been aimed at Democrats in the Legislature, not Baker.
Baker has made several statements throughout December assuring the public the T is ready for whatever winter throws the state's way. However, the scandal surrounding an operator-less Red Line train that left Braintree Station a couple weeks ago did not help improve the agency’s reputation.
After Deaths, Reforms Made At DCF
Another crisis Baker handled involved serious incidents related to actions at the Department of Children and Families. Improving department operations had been a major campaign promise of the governor's.
Several high-profile cases, including the homicide death of Bella Bond and the near-death of a 7-year-old Hardwick boy abused by his father, dominated the headlines over the summer. DCF had some involvement in those cases, and that prompted the governor to reexamine the agency.
“I do not want be another administration that sort of chases what I would describe as a half-baked solution to this problem in hopes it goes away," Baker said in early October. "We want to be the folks that stick with this all the way through and get it right.”
For much of the fall, the administration worked with the union that represents social workers in crafting changes to the agency’s intake policy, which Baker pointed out many times had not been updated in a decade. They also developed a supervisory policy, something that had never been put in place. The updated policies will be rolled out over the next month.
Battling Massachusetts' Opioid Crisis
Another campaign promise from the governor was to address the state's opioid crisis, which continues to grow. The state came up with more money for treatment beds. The governor met with his counterparts from the region to discuss the issue, and he's now campaigning for quick approval in January of his bill to limit first-time opiate prescriptions and allow doctors to involuntarily hold substance abuse patients. Some of those provisions have considerable opposition so this will be a test of his political influence.
Meanwhile, Baker maintains a collegial relationship with the overwhelmingly Democratic state Legislature. Just about every Monday when the Legislature is in session, there’s a leadership meeting attended by the governor, House speaker and Senate president. Afterward, the three of them come out, and answer reporters’ questions together.
In the past, when Deval Patrick was governor, the big three would often scramble, forcing reporters to chase them individually down the hall. Any smart, Republican governor in Massachusetts realizes he has to pick his fights with the Democratic Legislature. He needs them more than they need him. However, Baker has signaled he will not be happy if the Legislature doesn’t take up his opioid bill in the opening months of 2016.
What To Expect From Gov. Baker In 2016
It is likely that Gov. Baker's favorability ratings will hold up in the new year. Those numbers have been hovering around 70 percent. Although some say the governor has nowhere to go but down.
What could bring those ratings down?
A lot depends on who is the Republican presidential nominee, and how much of an endorsement Baker gives that candidate. He has successfully distanced himself from the presidential campaign, but he’ll ultimately be asked if he supports the party’s nominee. If the party goes with a more conservative candidate likely to have a hard time gathering support in liberal Massachusetts, that won’t help the governor here at home.
On the policy front, look for Baker to continue pushing for an energy bill, that calls for purchasing hydropower from Canada. He’s also expected to put out a jobs bill early in the year.
This segment aired on December 29, 2015.
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