At a time when the national Republican Party is toying with brands of right-wing extremism barely imaginable a year earlier, the local GOP standard bearer -- Gov. Charlie Baker -- delivered his first State of the Commonwealth Address with an air of relatively modest, can-do determination straight out of a 1940s Hollywood film starring the likes of Jimmy Stewart.
Baker's goal: continuity -- a continuation of a bi-partisan Era of Good Feeling that has held the normally fractious Beacon Hill in its nurturing embrace for the last 12 months. Baker is, of course, enabled by the Democratic leaders who rule the House and Senate. But unprecedented comity appears to be good for the business of politics. If, as a result, Baker is perhaps the nation's most popular governor, so what?
Baker's priorities Thursday night were almost identical to those of his election. At his inauguration, Baker complained of too many issues being ignored or kicked down the road, but the issues he addressed in front of a joint session of the Legislature Thursday sounded familiar as he urged Beacon Hill Democrats to work with him and push big pieces of legislation over the finish line.
Spurred by Baker, Democrats have been working on bills to combat opiate addiction, clean up our energy supply, and figure out charter schools for months, but with no clear compromises yet. As amicable as the speech was, Baker was the most forceful he's been yet in asking for action.
Toward the end, Baker commented on the lack of conflict he's faced from lawmakers so far.
"As the administration ends its first year in office, some have lamented how boring we are. I’ll admit: that makes me smile. No fights. No yelling. No partisan scrums," Baker said.
The scourge of opiate addiction has preoccupied many local lawmakers for some time, but a bill to address prevention is still waiting for a compromise between House and Senate versions. Baker has been calling for a final bill for months and urged lawmakers as strongly as ever to finish their work and get a bill to his desk.
Baker also used the speech to call out medical professionals who he says too quickly prescribe addictive medication.
“Prescribers in Massachusetts – and across this country – are far too casual about the addictive consequences of these medication," he said.
Baker pushed his energy agenda by telling lawmakers that in order to work together with other regional states to bring cleaner energy sources to Massachusetts, the Legislature must act promptly on a compromise to invest in hydropower and other new sources, while altering the way solar energy providers are compensated.
“Governors across New England – Democrats and Republicans – have made clear to me that they’re ready to go. They’re waiting on us. And solutions will take time to implement. I urge the legislature to move on this now," Baker said.
On schools, Baker urged the House and Senate to be bold when dealing with K-12 education, Baker, a strong supporter of expanding the number of charter schools in Massachusetts, wants the legislature to give him a bill doing just that. But with strong opposition from teachers' unions and others on the left, charters may be a difficult issue for either chamber to get through it's Democratic members.
Like the Legislature, Baker has packed much of his legislative agenda into the annual state budget bill, which determines complex spending priorities. Baker said this year's budget will continue last year's theme of adding to local and education aid and supporting public transportation.
Baker caved to House lawmakers on the controversial Film Tax Credit, which gives incentives to film producers to make movies here. Baker has argued for some time that the tax breaks help Hollywood types more than local production houses, but DeLeo has been a staunch supporter.
“We respect the legislature’s desire to retain the credit. Message delivered. But we believe it would be more cost effective to return to its original structure," Baker said, without going into details of what he wants to change.
Baker spent much of the beginning of his address pointing out where his administration has started to turn government around.
He said that last winter's MBTA crisis lead to "meaningful reforms" and thanked lawmakers for passing legislation that allowed him to establish a Fiscal and Management Control Board to manage the agency.
Baker said he will work to double the capital investment needed to start fixing the T for the long term.
“And to the taxpayers who may never ride the T but who write a $1 billion check to the system every year. I say you deserve to know that your support is delivering a reliable, affordable, transparent and efficient service," Baker said.
Baker hailed his team's management of the Massachusetts Health Connector, the state's Obamacare health insurance marketplace that failed miserably in 2014, but rebounded admirably last year.
Problems at the Department of Children and Families was another concern for Baker, who's put new front-line and managerial practices in place to help prevent repeats of recent tragedies that have befallen children in the system. This effort, Baker pointed out, is being done in partnership with labor leaders who know how dire trhe situation at DCF really is.
“This is all being done in partnership with SEIU Local 509 leadership, which represents DCF social workers. These workers often haven’t had the playbook or support from the top to do their work – and do it well," Baker said.
Left off the list of priorities from his inaugural address are items like revitalizing urban centers and containing healthcare costs, a big factor in an ever-expanding state budget.
Democratic Party activists have criticized Baker for lacking vision and not thinking big. But Democratic leaders like House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg rarely openly battle with Baker on high profile items while lawmakers debate behind closed doors.