CRUNCH TIME FOR GOVERNOR BAKER’S MANAGER TEAM

Kristen Lepore

^ Baker has every reason to look worried as he and his Budget chief Kristen Lepore face FY 2017’s many crucial choices

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To what the Governor actually does every day, I am not privy. Much of his time is spent on the roads of our State, going from the Cape to Springfield and everywhere in between, sometimes delayed by traffic, speaking at this factory or touring that educational institution, talking to officials, addressing fund raisers — more than most, he also visits kids’ sports programs and self-help organizations where he encourages young people to challenge life’s difficulties.

Good thing that he has a cell phone. I’ve seen him take calls and make them when out and about. Mostly, though, when he’s at an event, he’s talking to people, addressing the difficult issues and selling his solutions. Of course he also meets with his management team in the office most every day. And there, i assume, he reviews the details of their tasks.

Meanwhile, as the Governor is out selling, his chiefs of agencies have the actual grunt work of putting Baker’s agenda into practice. For most of these managers, the challenges become more difficult, not less, every day.

For Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollock, every week uncovers a new difficulty. Can we complete Green Line expansion within budget ? How much will it ACTUALLY cost to bring the current MBTA up to performance condition ? (Last week we found that the repair backlog price has increased from $ 6.7 billion to $ 7.3 billion.) In what budget year can we install new-technology trains on the commuter rail’s Fairmount Line ? There’s also the Carmen’s Union pension trust, which is undergoing redesignation — we will soon see the result.

Baker has made T reform his top priority. Which means that Pollock has no place to hide, no occasion to not be scrutinized.

The task is no easier for Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders. The Department of Families and Children (DCF) is in the news constantly, answering for neglect by the Department’s foster parents, deaths of abuse of children living with utterly dysfunctional parents, often in rural settings far away from, notice by neighbor, school officials, or police. Then there’s the Governor’s Opioid Addiction Task Force, which he has established and which pretty soon must move from surveying the problem to actually dong something about it ? Can they ? So far, the actual addiction community has been left out of the task — given so far entirely to institutional advice — even though addicts are the people who have to deal with it and do, often ingeniously.

Department of Public safety’s Dan Bennett has just as busy a schedule and plenty of challenges. Public Safety emergencies arise without warning. Protestors may block highways : Bennett has to get State Police to the spot and quickly. Bennett’s biggest challenge, however, lies in criminal justice, where reform is every policy activist’s hot topic. Much of this reform will be done by the legislature; but the five hours and more of inquisition given to Parole Board nominee Paul Treseler, at his confirmation hearing before the Council, makes painfully clear that every part of criminal justice reform will be contentious. In particular, the Councillors grilled Treseler at such length because parole decisions in Massachusetts have led, recently, to newsworthy misjudgments, followed — during Governor Patrick’s last years in office — by removal of an entire Parole Board membership. Treseler is a career prosecutor; and Councillors Duff, Iannella, and Albano made it quite clear that they think a prosecutor ill suited to reform; to expansion of parole eligibility.

And what of Kristen Lepore, Baker’s Secretary of Administration and Finance ? Her task seems hardest of all. Every piece of Bennett’s, Sudders’s, and Pollack’s missions entails money. The Parole Board, as we learned at Treseler’s hearing, has seen its budget cut by $ 2,000,000. No less than $ 100,000,000 was pared from DCF’s budget during Governor Patrick’s last years in office; so far they have not been restored, though at a recent press conference Baker committed to bringing back quickly the lost $ 100 million. Lepore probably still does not have a good figure for what the Opioid Addiction crisis initiative will cost. And then comes Transportation, for which the bill never seems to stop adding up.

Lepore is probably already working out the next year’s fiscal budget — FY 2017 — because it needs be presented to the Legisdal;ture early next year. that’s only a few months away now. In a way, Lepore had it easy working the FY 2016 budget. The State faced a large budget deficit. Lepore had no choice buy to cut, and she did. As it turned out, she overestimated the deficit; and the State now has a surplus, much of which Baker is allocating to this and that urgency, Transportation especially. The FY 2017 budget will be more difficult. Every Department will bark loudly for more money. Most of that will be fully justified — the MBTA’s anguish cannot be set aside.

The FY 2016 budget also continued a hiring freeze ordered by Baker the week that he took office. Now the freeze will end. But how many new hires will be allotted to which agency ? That’s not merely a money decision.

Lastly, there’s a huge, political dimension to the FY 2017 Budget. Many policy activists are calling for new revenue, especially for the MBTA. There may be a ballot initiati8ve to establish a two-tier state income tax. The Governor has promised to seek a second part to the EITC expansion he spearheaded in his campaign and which the Legislature adopted. Advocates are mentioning a new Gas tax hike, and it is receiving support from some people who opposed the previous gas Tax hike. All such proposals will have to pass muster with the :Legislature. So far, House Speaker DeLeo has resisted tax hikes and user fee increases, well in line with Baker’s position. The Senate has taken the opposite position. Its leader, Stan Rosenberg joined by about eight “progressive” senators, want more revenue. Will Speaker DeLeo continue to say no ? Will Baker ?

For Baker, it’s a gamble no matter which way he goes. His Republican activist base mostly wants less taxes, not more. But 78 percent of Baker’s winning 2014 vote came from voters who are not Republicans. Many of them — to say nothing of voters who didn’t support Baker in his narrow, two-point victory and who he surely hopes to win this time –want state services to be full funded (for education especially, a Department I have not even mentioned). I expect that Baker and Lepore  have many days and evenings ahead of them hammering one difficult money nail after another into the political mileposts.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

Author: hereandsphere

Here and Sphere is an online journal of news, opinion, reviews, advice, & bits n' pieces of everything else - from HERE to SPHERE...... Co-founded by Michael Freedberg, a long-time Boston Phoenix journalist, and Heather Cornell, a South Coast Massachusetts columnist and editor.

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