Sitting for a radio interview last week, Governor Charlie Baker listened to point after point arguing against a regional pact he supports to curb greenhouse gas emissions: Gas prices would go up. Other New England states have cast doubt on it. The concept, the opponent said in a 26-second soundbite, is “horribly flawed.”
As a Republican governing a heavily Democratic state, Baker is no stranger to resistance to high-profile ideas. But this was no partisan flak blaring into his ear at WGBH’s studio: It was Chris Sununu, New Hampshire’s Republican governor.
Baker is one of the most prominent proponents of the Transportation and Climate Initiative, the 11-state, cap-and-trade program his administration touts as a key response to climate change. But amid an already complex debate, the loudest opposition is flowing from those within his own party.
Sununu has openly criticized the program, pulling New Hampshire from it after participating states announced gas prices could jump by as much as 17 cents a gallon under the plan. Other New England governors — Republican Phil Scott in Vermont and Democrats Ned Lamont of Connecticut and Janet Mills of Maine — have also expressed doubts. Right-leaning groups around New England have urged policy makers to abandon the effort. And GOP lawmakers argue that the Legislature, not just Baker, should have a voice in whether Massachusetts joins.
“You usually don’t see a bunch of us [in the GOP caucus] taking a stand against the governor,” said state Representative Shawn Dooley, a Norfolk Republican. “I have no problem bucking the party and the governor. But I’m usually by myself.”
The Massachusetts Republican Party — whose relationship with Baker has been strained — has taken its whacks at the initiative, known as TCI, calling it a “new Beacon Hill gas tax." It pointed to the state’s past attempt to tie its 24-cents-a-gallon state gas tax to inflation before it was repealed at the ballot in 2014.
“It looks like Beacon Hill didn’t listen," Jim Lyons, the party chairman, said in a New Year’s Eve news release.
It didn’t cite Baker by name nor note that Baker had opposed tying the gas tax to inflation. But it’s the governor’s administration, not the Legislature, that has been TCI’s primary cheerleader, and it’s Baker’s energy secretary who is co-chairing the effort.
Baker has said he expects a lot of “gear-grinding” about TCI, which has drawn support from business groups, from the Associated Industries of Massachusetts to the Massachusetts Business Roundtable. He said he’s also spoken directly with other governors, and he remains confident the pact can draw a critical mass of support from other states.
“The initiative has support from members of both the business and environmental communities who believe this initiative will further mitigate the impacts of climate change, protect the health of our residents, and build a more resilient, sustainable, and equitable transportation system for the next generation," Sarah Finlaw, a Baker spokeswoman said.
But as a leading Baker priority, TCI is running against most of the GOP grain. It also adds to the list of times he’s opposed Republicans, criticized President Trump, or distanced himself from his party to the point some wonder why he hasn’t left already.
“I don’t think the party has moved on this issue. I think the governor has,” said Paul Craney, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative-leaning nonprofit. The group, which doesn’t disclose its donors, has promoted polling by one of its other nonprofit arms, funded as part of its criticism of TCI, which it considers a tax. “We’re hoping he comes around.”
The initiative works like this: The program would impose a new fuel cost at the wholesale level by establishing a system of carbon pollution allowances, as early as 2022, for up to a dozen states. The goal, proponents say, is to discourage usage of gasoline enough that carbon emissions from transportation would drop by up to 25 percent over a decade, while the proceeds raised by the new revenue scheme would flow back to participating states. (Baker expects up to $500 million annually for Massachusetts.)
The governor opposes a separate increase in the state’s gas tax under consideration in the state Legislature. He argues that TCI covers more ground.
It would raise money for installing car charging stations or electrifying buses, while also giving automakers and fuel suppliers incentive to wean their businesses from carbon-based products, he said. As a regional approach, it also encompasses tens of millions of people and vehicles.
“This is about reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” Baker said on Boston Public Radio last week. “I mean, this is the one area where we really haven’t made any progress at all on greenhouse gas emissions — ever.”
The initiative is also likely to drive up the costs at the pump, and state officials have openly questioned whether it’s "politically feasible” for the state to pursue it while the Democratic-controlled Legislature is considering hiking the state gas tax as part of a still-in-development transportation financing bill.
Senate President Karen E. Spilka and other Senate leaders back joining TCI, while House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo has expressed doubts about the initiative’s support.
Even the state’s process of signing onto the program has been under debate. The Baker administration can choose to unilaterally commit the state without legislative approval under the state’s 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act.
But Republicans have forcefully argued the Legislature should have a say. State Representative Bradley H. Jones, the moderate House minority leader, filed legislation that would require Baker to present lawmakers a plan for multistate compacts, such as TCI, and give the Legislature time to vote on whether to approve. If it takes no action in 90 days, the governor would be free to act.
Jones did not say he diametrically opposes the regional program, but he pointed to the uncertainty around the state potentially hiking the gas tax in legislation and also seeing higher prices through TCI.
“I don’t have the luxury of looking at them as mutually exclusive,” the North Reading Republican said. “That’s why I say, why don’t you submit [TCI] here? It still keeps the Legislature involved.”
There are opposing views. Other Republicans are pushing a broader proposal that requires legislative approval with no timetable. Representative Marc T. Lombardo, a Billerica Republican cosponsoring that bill, called the regional pact a tax and an “end-around” to the legislative process.
“The governor is a good friend of mine, and we get along and we agree on a lot of things,” Lombardo said. “This happens to be one thing where we see things differently."