Baker’s Administration Hit with Criticisms
GOV. CHARLIE BAKER got a taste, albeit a small one, this week of what many people assume it must be like for a Republican governor in a Democrat-dominated state.
Beset by critics and a little balder than usual (thanks to his annual charity shave), Baker’s administration was called elitist and misogynistic by District Attorney Rachael Rollins, heartless by Rep. Marjorie Decker and stingy by House Speaker Robert DeLeo and other House Dems.
And all for different reasons.
The most contentious kerfuffle was undoubtedly between Rollins and Public Safety Secretary Tom Turco.
The spat actually started last week when Turco sent Rollins a letter raising concerns with her new approach to prosecuting some drug and minor crimes like shoplifting. More specifically, Rollins’s approach is to not prosecute those crimes at all after years of watching minority communities torn apart by what she considers to be overzealous law enforcement.
While Turco said the approach could undermine the state’s fight against opioid addiction, Rollins did not take kindly to being critiqued by an unelected public safety official, or the administration’s decision to air its concerns publicly without talking to her first. The administration had anticipated some of the push back, but not to the degree it rose.
The first-year district attorney responded by making allusions to assault allegations against Baker’s youngest son and perceived bias against her for being a woman of color in a position of authority. Even Attorney General Maura Healey absorbed a Rollins punch for not rushing to the district attorney’s defense.
Baker tried to diffuse the situation on Saturday with a personal phone call and it seemed that all sides had gone back to their corners, but Rollins resumed her fighting stance at a community rally the next day where she talked about delivering roundhouse kicks to the face.
If the response seemed disproportionate to the offense, none of her fellow district attorneys were going to say it. Several approached over the course of the week shied away from picking sides, and even Healey tried to avoid the meat of the dispute, telling reporters that she hadn’t read Rollins’s memo but that it was the DA’s “prerogative” to enforce the law as she sees fit for her community.
By Thursday afternoon, Rollins had sat down with both Healey and Turco for what were described as “fruitful” conversations, and for now the fire seems to be have been put out.
DECKER, HOWEVER, IS probably still fuming about Baker’s decision to veto legislation that would repeal a cap on family welfare benefits for parents who have a child while already receiving public assistance. For the third time Baker rejected legislation to “lift the cap on kids” because it did not contain other welfare reforms that have been non-starters with Democratic leaders.
“The only thing I appreciate is his honesty in the message he is sending to poor women and their families,” Decker said on Twitter.
Unlike prior vetoes of the provision, this one came in plenty of time for the branches to override. The House overrode the governor’s veto on Wednesday, and the Senate has scheduled a vote for April 25.
THE LEGISLATURE, HOWEVER, cannot force the governor to spend $30 million on low-income heating assistance. All they can do is yell, so that’s what they did after the administration indicated that it would release $11 million in LIHEAP funding this year and save the remaining $19 million authorized by the Legislature for next year.
DeLeo, Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz and others this week tsk-tsked the governor for his decision and urged him to change his mind, but so far there’s been no indication that might happen.
All of this served as the appetizer for the release of a budget plan from the House Ways and Means Committee, a first pass from the new chairman on a $42.7 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.
DeLeo and Baker, it turns out, found more to agree on than not in the Ways and Means budget, minus even the governor’s modest new revenue proposal.
As DeLeo signaled at the start of the week, the Michlewitz budget included no new taxes, not even Baker’s proposed tax on opioid manufacturers or the expansion of tobacco taxes to vaping products.
“That does not mean it’s not up for further discussion,” DeLeo said about the vaping tax. (For what it’s worth, Healey came out in support of taxing e-cigs and banning vape flavors this week)
The veteran Democratic leader just wants that “further discussion” about new revenues to take place later this year, along with consideration of sports betting and online Lottery, which were both rendered verboten by a budget order adopted by the House that prohibited amendments on those topics.
The bottom line of the House Ways and Means budget actually came in a whisker under Gov. Baker’s budget, though it will surely grow during the floor debate that starts on April 22.
The most significant area of new spending after MassHealth was education. House leaders proposed a $237 million increase in the Chapter 70 base for cities and towns, including a $16.5 million reserve to help districts with large numbers of low-income students.
Just how that money will be parceled out, however, remains to be seen. DeLeo and Michlewitz said the low-income reserve was intended as a placeholder pending the outcome of a rewrite of the state’s education funding formula that the Education Committee is actively working on.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association called the House proposal “woefully inadequate,” and DeLeo wouldn’t commit to a timeline for finishing the education debate, nor the sports betting debate, nor the revenue debate.
IT SEEMS THAT despite all of these agenda items being on the list since last year, the House is no closer to making decisions on how to proceed than they were last summer when they wrapped formal sessions.
Major decisions are often slow-walked on Beacon Hill at the start of the new session out of nominal deference to the committee process, and committees were getting busy this week.
The Revenue Committee heard testimony on the “millionaires tax,” the Health Care Financing Committee dug into prescription drug pricing and the Higher Education Committee dipped its toe back into the campus sexual assault arena.
The Transportation Committee also reported out two bills that would ban hand-held cell phone use while driving, with the House version filed by Rep. William Straus shuttled over to Ways and Means, which became the final resting place for a similar bill last session.
STORY OF THE WEEK: House Ways and Means budget reveals how far from a decision leaders are on taxes, sports betting and education reform.
The Sunday Notebook was written by State House News Service reporter Matt Murphy.