A TO-DO LIST FOR GOVERNOR BAKER’s SECOND TERM

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^ Governor Baker in January 2018 created a Commission to study the state’s transportation needs going forward. As I see it, this must be his second term’s top priority.

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Having been re-elected by two to one — receiving over 1,700,000 votes — Governor Baker has all the four winds at his political back as he looks forward to a second term of four years in charge of our state. What should his priorities be ?

In his election night speech he signalled “more of the same, of what has already worked.” He repeated this theme in succeeding interviews. I’m not one to contradict him — disclosure : I worked in his campaign, every day — yet I’d like to offer an amended version of what he has said. Here is what I think his priorities should be :

( 1 ) bring the MBTA infrastructure — tracks, signals, rails — fully up to “state good repair.” Let this mission include completion of the Green Line Extension and the successful introduction of electric buses, smaller buses for less traveled routes, and all-night service.

( 2 ) continue to expand facilities for treating opioid addicts,m including hiring sufficient recovery coaches and graduating medical school students who’ve taken courses in addiction medicine. This mission is in good shape. The Governor has insisted on it since Day One and looks on track, with the legislature’s assistance, to master this crisis.

( 3 ) determine a master plan for channeling the burdens imposed on greater Boston by vast increases in vehicle traffic, and  begin to implement it : Baker has already set up such a commission (link here : https://www.mass.gov/news/governor-baker-creates-commission-on-the-future-of-transportation-in-the-commonwealth)

The Commission he has ordered has no simple matter in its hands, but the traffic situation in and around Boston is getting worse every day. It cannot go on. Somehow his transportation group must find a path — working with Mayors of Boston and surrounding cities — to channel much vehicle traffic away from major arterial roads. This may mean putting some service routes underground, or doubling train runs on the Commuter Rail Lines, or building up ferry and seaplane service, or all three. Or it may mean favoring bike paths, walk routes, or helicopter service, or all three of these as well. Much public comment will be needed and much regional planning, and then legislative appropriations. Whatever it takes, new facts must be put on the ground. The Suffolk Downs development alone will add 20,000 new residents, resulting in that much vehicular increase; and Suffolk probably numbers less than one-sixth of the additional residents expected in Boston by 2030, much less an additional 150,000 in adjacent cities. Our transportation infrastructure — including roads and paths — was built for 1960-1970 traffic according to plans devised in the late 1950s. We have to do better and do it now.

( 4 ) make fuel delivery safer on all counts. Baker is already filing legislation to ensure safer gas pipeline management. The condition of gas pipelines remains a problem. State oversight of all gas pipelines must improve. I read that we have less gas inspectors than the present law requires. We must the required number and probably increase it as well. Those who want to see all fossil fuel usage phased out sooner rather than later will be hard to respond to if we can’t administer the gas delivery systems we now have. (That said, fossil fuel usage will be phased out, and the state should devise a feasible plan for doing so that does not ( a ) imperil the thousands of fuel delivery and maintenance jobs that people now hold and ( b ) does not impose tax burdens on limited income households, as present “carbon tax” proposals seem to do.

( 5 ) establish a Coastal Zone commission to devise a feasible response to sea level rise. The State has numerous agencies tasked at present to monitor or respond to sea rise and storm flooding events. Baker should consolidate some of these into one overall commission and charge it with creating a plan that will allow coastal communities — including seaside neighborhoods of Boston — to live with ocean levels several feet higher than normal today. Flooding of residential neighborhoods is already happening in storms. Soon even normal high tides will cause flooding. At least 250,000 people live in areas directly affected. Governor and legislature must enable and encourage all manner of community-created, innovative responses and then enable those which can best work. The time is now.

( 6 ) continue to build up school to job, economic and workforce housing centers in the State’s “gateway” cities outside the metro Boston zone. Boston has sucked up just about all the capital there is for commerce and industry in Massachusetts. I don’t see this changing any time soon. It’s simply much safer to invest in an existing trend than to try to begin one. (The people with skills and schooling to execute these investments are where they are. Moving them out to Springfield or Fall River isn’t likely.) Only the State can jump-start a new economic boom zone. Transit — high-speed rail — will help, but not by itself. There won’t be many riders on a bullet train if there’s no prosperity engine driving it. Baker has made a good start creating school-work-housing link-ups in Springfield-Holyoke-Chicopee: it must be built upon. Fifty years ago the State created a university system in and around Amherst, where none had existed. Today that system dominates the Connecticut valley from the Vermont Border to north of Holyoke — two thirds of the river valley. Baker’s second term must see an economic boom zone extend that education powerhouse into all of greater Springfield. The Governor is on this one. I think it will happen.

That said, Berkshire County and the gap towns between Worcester and the Connecticut valley continue to be weak economically and in other ways. Populations in these sections are aging; new people do not move in. It won’t be easy to  create an economic presence as strong as the industries that made the Berkshire valley cities prosperous from the 1860s to the 1970s — GE is NOT coming back to Pittsfield any time soon, nor the Sprague Company to North Adams. Can tourism and the arts suffice ? So far they haven’t. Berkshire has become, economically and culturally, an extension of Vermont, in which he same economic problems rule. During the 1970s-1990s, the region benefited from City people changing careers and moving to the mountains to live quiet lives and do crafts, or run tourist inns or ski vacation lodges: now that movement has stopped, and there’s not much going on in its place. Perhaps logging and farming are the only feasible answers, in addition to the tourism and arts festivals that already dominate many Berkshire towns and cities.

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There’s more for Governor Baker to do than the six priorities I have listed. Chiefest among the rest of his second term mission must be to continue his successful partnership with House Speaker DeLeo — because any legislation that the Speaker doesn’t support isn’t going very far — and to allow his priorities to be amended, where wise, by the suggestions that will surely come from the State Senate, whose 40 relate much more closely to the state’s “progressives” than do the 160 House members. That said, one thing the Governor can NOT do, and he knows it : he cannot take up proposals that would split the Democratic party. Chief among these, in 2018, was the so-called “Safe Communites Act” (SCA), which would mandate that the State’s police forces refuse co operation with ICE, the Federal agency that hunts won undocumented immigrants and sometimes legal immigrants as well. As much as I would like to see all immigrants living i n Massachusetts supported at every turn, no matter is more divisive, or more emotional, than immigration, and to take the “progressive’ side on the SCA would be to imperil every other Baker priority, not to mention invite primary competition to “regular” Democrats. 2018 saw Jeffrey Sanchzez, the legislature’s budget chief and the most influential Latino elected in Massachusetts, defeated in a primary by an opponent who made Sanchez’s realism about not pressing the SCA her defining issue. Though few Democratic legislators would face serious primary challenges despite, pressing such a divisive issue as the SCA would invite many such, and a few might well succeed. this would ensure that instead of consensus reform, Massachusetts politics would subject itself to the recriminations and partisan vengeances that have made national politics all but impossible.

To say it more succinctly : Baker and the legislature should continue to work on reforms that enjoy solid majority support. There is plenty of that, in my six priorities, that can be done and must be done.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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