^ alone in his cubicle : Governor Baker is enjoying his work. Next year it will get much tougher.
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Governor Baker is going to find 2016 a much more challenging year than 2015 has been. Is he ready ? I hope so. as a supporter, I hope so. As a citizen, I hope so.
Baker has been perfectly matched, as Governor, to the crises of 2015 :
Baker promised no new fees or taxes, and as the voters were not about to grant anything like new revenue to the dysunctioning T, to the boondoggled Health Connector, to the incomprtent DC, he and the voters aligned exactly.
Baker wanted opioid addiction treated as a health issue, not a criminal matter — and that change of theory was readily adopted by a public disllusioned by the injustice and hamfistedness of maximum incarceration.
Baker made local aid and municipal administration reform a top priority, and the elected officials and appointed executives of the state’s 351 municipalities — and their activist citizens — were glad to enjoy the spotlight after being slighted and nickel and dimed during the second of Governor Patrick’s terms.
The Governor devoted a huge amount of time and attention to events in Boston’s communities of color, and just as much effort devoted to highlighting and assisting these communitues’ many self-help progarms, including sports, hunger prevention, urban farming, and arts. Residents have basked in attention that they had not exxpected from a Republican; they have, in some cases, responded to Baker’s call for school choice, co-operatives, and interfaith activism.
Baker also applied his caution motto with superb results. He never signed on to the Boston 2024 Olympic project and, when he told the Olympic Committee to pound sand, made sure that he spoke for both of the state’s legislative leaders as well as for himself. Baker also halted expansion of the Boston Convention Center, a move that certainly did not boost the city’s economy but was accepted because the “tight budget crunch” message was accepted by most political participamts.
Lastly, Baker was the beneficiary of the state’s minimum wage rising, twice — it goes to $ 10.00 an hour tomorrow morning — thanks to legislation enacted the year before he took office.
Little wonder that Baker’s the most popular Governor in America or that his popularity ranks high with Democrats as well as Republicans and people of no party — the majority in our state. Add to all of the above a winning personality — Baker enjoys sports and fun, participates in social media, and has become the poster guy for selfie photos with all and sundry; people call him “the coolest Governor around” — and there really has been no stopping Baker this past year from monopolizing, almost, the political imagery of Massachusetts.
Now comes 2016, a year in which decisions will have to be made that threaten to fracture the Baker tidal wave. Nor do I refer, here, to the still unenacted transgender civil rights law that Baker has resisted tapping into for the sake of a Republican party infight he prefers not to inflame. The transgender matter will be settled soon enough. Instead, I am referring to charter cap lift legislation, Baker’s opioid addiction bill, big MBTA decisions, and, above all, the question of revenue.
If there’s anything Baker’s Republican base is agreed on, it’s that the state shall not have new revenue, not for any purpose whatsoever. That threatens the MBTA with cutting back service and with halting the Green Line expansion through Somerville to Medford. There are many Republican activists who actually wat to see T service cut back; some wouldn’t mid if Baker sold the T to priovate business.
But 78 percent of the voters who elected Baker — narrowly — are not Republicans. What of them ? Many want T expansion; few want T cutbacks; none that I know of wants the T privatized. Baker cannot satisfy these voters without having much ‘splainin’ to do to his Republicans.
What, also, about economic inequality issues ? A move to raise the state’s minimum wage even higher, to $ 15/hour, looks strong, and a initiative to create a tax surcharge on incomes over $ 1,000,000 seems sure to pass. The added revenue from that surcharge is to be designated for transportation and education; but the history of tax revenue earmarked by ballot referenda teaches that the leguslature does what it wants with the money regardless.
Does Baker support the $ 15/hour wage ? oppose it ? Stay neutral ? And what of the tax surcharge referendum, which will appear on the 2018 ballot along with Baker’s re-election ?
Will Baker stick to his “no new revenue” position, counting on the tax surcharge to provide it to him (even if he opposes it) and thereby gain him T expansion money without alienating his Republican support ? At some point opposition is going to call out such a strategy, in which Baker makes everybody else take the tax rise heat while he looks the hero.
Perhaps Baker will do surface commitment to his initiatives, leaving their heavy lifting — and political risk — to others. I already see this game place taking place in the matter of charter cap lift. Baker has been highly visible rallynig communities of color — where support or charter schools runs hugely strong — but, at least to my view, less than front-line in support of his own cap lift legislation. Maybe that’s because Mayor Walsh of Boston opposes the Baker bill, favoring a longer-term cap lift bill of his own. Walsh’s school transformation plans have aroused some opposition from teacher union supporters and anti-charter activists, and Baker — who should be the opposition’s top target but does not seem to be — appears content to see how that plays out.
Still, Baker may not be allowed to play a waiting game; his Republican supporters want charter school expansion and, given Baker’s popularity, they will find it hard to grasp that they can’t yet have it NOW.
So far, Republicans are respoding to Baker’s enormous popularity like someone who’s just won the powerball lottery. The usual GOP view is that Massachusetts is a hopelessly blue lagoon of liberalism in which they, that last true believers, expect to — want to — go down with the ship. instead, they find that their leader is — the most popular politician in the state ! More popular even than Senator Warren, who to many Republican operatives is “the fake Indian” ! It would be only human nature for GOP activists, having won the Big Prize, to expect Baker to do anything and everything he wants to; implement the right wing wish list, break the unions, lower everybody’s wages, eliminate the food stamp “free load,” pay off the T’s multi-billion dollar debt — Nirvana !
It may not be pretty when these activist discover ( 1 ) that Baker may not share their small government utopia (I see him as a fan of large institutions and big-ricket administration); ( 2 ) that the legislature actually has its own agenda and all the votes it needss to enact it ( 3 ) Baker does not believe in instant magic and ( 4 ) does not believe that low wages and low taxes are the key to growing businesses. It may also be unpretty for Baker when he has to accept legislative leadership while explaining to his differing groups of supporters why that is the best case for re-election. After all, before he can be re-elec ted, he has to be re-nominated; and the virulent anti-governance tone of this year’s Republican primary is taking root even here in Massachusetts. The utopian policies of Massachusetts’ aging GOP activists feel very lukewarm — and malleable by a leader — compared to the ferocious revenges breasting through the new generation of GOP people. Baker wll have his hands full maintaining the allegiance of people or whom all or nothing is an article of faith while holding credibility with the vast majority of Massachustts voters for whom all or nothing is ananthema. (The availability of ballot referendum, an instrument becoming more and more common, vitiates even Baker’s substantial ability to control the agenda.)
I see the Baker year ahead as one not of heroism but of dogged persuasion, one in which he will be confronted and challenged, will be forced to compromise, will lose some fights and know when to steer clear in time of others. To put it another way : in 2016 Baker will have to be a politician as well as a reformer : a Steve Grossman, not a Dr Donald Berwick. And on several fronts.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere