Gov. Baker Calls for Tougher Opioid Laws, Southcoast Rail
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JAN. 23, 2018....Gov. Charlie Baker -- entering the final year of his first term and gearing up for a re-election contest -- delivered a workmanlike tick-tock of his administration's accomplishments on Tuesday night, while challenging Democrats to continue working with him to curb opioid abuse, build more housing and deliver on his vision for politics without "name-calling."
Baker, who is riding high in the polls as he and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito prepare to make the case to voters for another four years in office, used his final State of the Commonwealth address to write the narrative of his first term.
In many ways, the speech was quintessential Charlie Baker: slow and steady, seldom flashy and focused on the finer points of governing.
Seventy-three percent of voters in a recent WBUR poll said they thought the state was moving in the right direction, and Baker gave his version of why that might be the case. He also distanced himself, without ever mentioning President Donald Trump's name, from a national brand of Republicanism that remains deeply unpopular in Massachusetts, calling for a commitment to "common decency in our debate" and committing himself to fight for access to reproductive health care services "regardless of the outcome in D.C."
"We live in a great state filled with creative, community minded, hard-working decent people. And what they want from us is opportunity, possibility and hope," Baker said. "Not noise. Not name calling. And not finger pointing. Progress on the things that help them help themselves."
From reducing the number of opioid prescriptions written in Massachusetts, to moving homeless families out of motels and largely closing a $1 billion budget gap without raising taxes (a major applause line), the governor drew attention to both his successes and areas where more must be done, such as making the MBTA more reliable.
But without any major new policy proposals or pronouncements, the speech also played into one of the central criticisms of Baker by Democrats – the lack of a bold vision for where he wants to lead Massachusetts. He also did not take on any of the policy questions poised to go before voters in November, from a surtax on millionaires to a reduction in the sales tax and paid family leave.
"He basically said I'm a nice guy, I'm willing to work with you on small stuff. That should be enough. It's not enough in a moment of crisis. He might be a nice guy, he's just not the right guy for today," said environmentalist and entrepreneur Bob Massie, one of three Democrats running for governor.
The speech came a day before Baker is set to present to the Legislature his fiscal 2019 budget proposal on Wednesday, which he has already said will include a 3.5 percent increase in local aid and a $118 million increase, or 2.5 percent, in state support for public education.
The governor further teased that spending plan stating that it will call for an expansion of the earned income tax credit for low-income families, and an increase of $83 million for community-based mental health services.
On the opioid abuse front, Baker called on the Legislature to pass his Cares Act, and pledged that over the next five years his administration has plans to add 500 new treatments beds and increase spending on addiction services by $200 million.
He also asked the Legislature to "please move quickly" on a bill that would make it easier to arrest and prosecute traffickers of fentanyl, which was present in more than 80 percent of overdose deaths in 2017, and to act soon on a housing bill that he hopes will help develop 135,000 new units by 2025 to address" "overheated demand and rising prices."
For education, Baker, whose budget on Wednesday is expected to clear $40 billion, said he plans to propose a $7 million increase in scholarship funding for community college students who qualify for Pell Grants and to expand early college offerings for high school students looking to get a jump on coursework.
And Baker said his budget will include an extra $2 million to help municipalities and the state prepare and plan for the effects of climate change, which his critics panned as a drop in the bucket compared to what's needed.
"There's obviously room for negotiations on the scale of some of the programs and some of things that he talked about, but overall it was a great speech. It covered all the right things," said Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat.
Baker also ticked through the accolades that have poured in for the state in recent years, from being named the best state in the country by U.S. News and World Report to being ranked the healthiest state by the United Health Foundation.
He even squeezed in the fact that the New England Patriots are headed to their third Super Bowl in four years.
"So I can stand here and say without question the state of our Commonwealth is strong," Baker said.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who also plans to seek another term this fall and is concerned with helping get his members re-elected, said he appreciated the governor's focus on their shared achievements.
"I looked at is as a speech where he talked about what we were able to do together," House Speaker Robert DeLeo said after the remarks, without committing to pass the governor's latest priorities.
"It's very nice, and this is a night where we have a whole lot of discussion and talk about a lot of the positives. We've had a lot of accomplishments together in terms of getting things done, but let's see what the budget holds," he continued.
Acting Senate President Harriette Chandler agreed: "It was a very uplifting speech," the Worcester Democrat said.
Not all Democrats, however, walked away from the House Chamber feeling uplifted.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz said she was disappointed the governor did not address the "broken Chapter 70" formula for state aid that leaves schools underfunded, and Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman Gus Bickford said Baker failed to take on the pharmaceutical industry for fueling the opioid crisis and driving up health care costs or acknowledge how broken the MBTA is.
"Governor Baker seems happy with his status quo administration, but Massachusetts voters can see that his lack of a plan for the big challenges we face is hurting our state," Bickford said.
Baker did address the MBTA, but urged patience.
"There is more to do on the T. Much more. But for the first time in years the plan to modernize the system is in place and moving forward. Fixing decades of neglect doesn't happen overnight. But make no mistake, we will deliver the public transit system the people of this Commonwealth deserve," he said.
While Baker has not fully shifted into campaign mode yet, politics could not be fully removed from the evening.
Gubernatorial candidate Jay Gonzalez called Baker a "status quo governor" and expressed shock that Baker did use the platform to speak about the national moment occurring related to sexual harassment.
And former Newton Mayor Setti Warren, also running for governor, knocked the governor for not being transparent about what it costs year-to-year to maintain level services, and how much would be needed to make the investments necessary to improve transportation and addiction treatment.
House Minority Leader Brad Jones said he thought Baker's record would be a solid platform for his re-election bid, pointing to his turnaround of the sputtering Health Connector coupled with job growth in the state.
"All that positive news that I think is a strong basis to run for re-election on," Jones told the News Service. He said, "Competency and effective management really are important attributes in an administration."
Baker himself noted early in his remarks that, "Economically, we're hitting on all cylinders."
The governor's speech was "fantastic," Jones said, and he said the Legislature has "largely worked off" the governor's agenda this session.
"We had what I would say is a fairly slow year last year and I think we have a lot to do in the next six months," Jones said. He said, "We have a lot more to do. And the governor's got a good strong agenda."
The speech had many applause lines for both Democrats and Republicans, but just because he was on his feet clapping, Speaker DeLeo said it's still too soon to think about a Democrat's chances of beating Baker, or if he would want to see that at all.
"I don't feel anyone's unbeatable, except maybe Tom Brady and the Patriots," DeLeo said.