Last summer, Democratic lawmakers and advocates celebrated when a wide-ranging police accountability bill easily cleared the Massachusetts House.
But the 93-66 roll call worried some activists, who immediately saw something else: Not enough votes to override a potential veto from Governor Charlie Baker.
“As soon as I saw that first House vote, I thought, ‘There are too many Democrats voting against this bill,’” said Matt Miller, cofounder of Act on Mass, a progressive advocacy group that closely follows Beacon Hill activity. “That’s going to give him a ton of power.”
It did. Baker later threatened to reject the bill unless the Legislature made a variety of changes, including loosening proposed restrictions on facial recognition and dropping a provision to shift oversight of officer training to a new civilian-controlled board. The Legislature quickly capitulated — to the chagrin of some advocates who once cheered them.
Even with Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate, the Republican governor leveraged a rushed, and at times divided, Legislature to reshape some of the biggest laws in the legislative session that ended this month.
Baker scored a victory when lawmakers passed a measure he long sought to make it easier to change local zoning rules. He blocked new protections for renters and a proposed fee hike on Uber and Lyft rides in two omnibus borrowing bills. And, most notably, he pressed lawmakers to remake a policing bill in the 11th hour that legislative leaders had spent months composing.
“He was a force on that,” said Representative Kevin G. Honan, a Brighton Democrat.
Baker’s influence owed to a mix of circumstance and timing. Democrats agreed with him on several issues, including the need to loosen local rules to help spur housing.
But they were uncommonly split on the entire policing package. And despite extending formal lawmaking to January, they didn’t pass several major bills until the final days or hours of the session — and lost the ability to directly override a slew of Baker’s vetoes, including a marquee climate change bill, because the session had already ended by the time Baker rejected the measures.
“It just seems like everything took longer, and I know talking to my constituents, there was some frustration. ‘Geez, you extended the session until the very end, but nothing happened in September, October,’” said Senator James B. Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who tied the delays, in part, to the pandemic disrupting the session. “Maybe it will be a lesson learned for the Legislature.”
Now, Baker is expected to begin pushing his priorities for the new legislative term in his annual state of the Commonwealth address on Tuesday night and when his office unveils a state budget proposal the following day.
To be sure, the Legislature muscled Baker on other measures, including overriding his veto on an amendment expanding abortion access in Massachusetts. Lawmakers also undertook the almost annual ritual of turning aside gubernatorial vetoes of spending and policies in the current state budget, overriding more than 140 of them.
“Clearly, the governor has had an influence — and he should, he’s the governor,” said Senate President Karen E. Spilka, a Democrat from Ashland. “But the House and Senate had clearly a lot of influence, too, on what we do, and what goes to the governor’s desk.”
For instance, legislative leaders this month refiled the far-reaching climate bill, and Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano said they expected it to move quickly through the chambers, where lawmakers had already approved the version by wide margins.
In an interview, Mariano bristled at the idea of declaring “winners or losers” for the legislative session. But he said there are limitations the Legislature faces in having to appease a wide range of members, even with Democrats controlling 165 of the 200 seats.
“It’s a cooperative effort,” said Mariano, a Quincy Democrat. “The governor is an audience of one and he’s an equal part of the government. For us, we have to have people agree.”
Baker and Democratic leaders have long worked well together and have avoided impasses even on thorny policy work, from regulating marijuana to taxing short-term rentals. Rarely, if ever, has the legislative process turned into the gangly Ping-Pong match it was in recent months, with Baker and the Legislature trading amendments and veto letters on multiple pieces of legislation, all at the same time.
His veto of the climate bill, which Baker said he did “reluctantly,” opened him to criticism from environmental activists who once applauded his efforts to drive down greenhouse gas emissions. And his opposition to the abortion bill and parts of the policing package sowed frustration among advocates and progressive lawmakers both within and outside the State House.
“Make no mistake, Governor Baker’s attempts to weaken and undermine these bills demonstrates a lack of leadership and understanding of the scale and scope of the hurt so many of our most vulnerable communities in Massachusetts experience every day,” US Representative Ayanna Pressley said in a statement to the Globe. “Despite the Governor’s best efforts to slow our efforts, we will continue moving in the direction of progress.”
In an interview, Baker said tension with the Legislature is a natural, if not necessary, part of lawmaking — “constructive friction,” he said.
“I want to be able to be comfortable that we made the right decisions for the right reasons at the right time — win or lose,” Baker said.
Baker, who is up for reelection next year, said he has not made a decision on whether he’ll seek an unprecedented third consecutive term. But he said he does not make the policy decisions through that lens.
“We all in public life especially get judged not just on what we accomplish but the way we operate and the decisions that we make,” he said. “I don’t think about it in the context of how it would look or feel if I were to suddenly run or not run.”
Both Baker and the Legislature remain popular in the state. A MassINC Polling Group conducted last month found Baker had a 73 percent approval rating among registered voters, slightly better than the 65 percent approval rating for the state Legislature. And in some cases, the pandemic has helped bring both arms of government together, even as Baker has separately wielded expansive — and unilateral — emergency powers.
For instance, several lawmakers said the pandemic highlighted the need for more affordable housing, helping build support in the Legislature for a proposal Baker had pushed since 2017 to make it easier to make local zoning changes.
“It’s an issue whose time has come and the housing crisis continued to spiral out of control,” said state Senator Eric P. Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat.
With the policing legislation, Baker benefited from a divided House that sapped lawmakers’ ability to simply reject his demands, as several conservative Democrats voted against both the Legislature’s compromise version and the package with Baker’s changes. “It’s partly explained by the fact that some Massachusetts Democrats would be Republicans in other states,” said Denise Provost, a progressive Somerville Democrat who did not seek reelection to her seat this session.
Both chambers, despite passing their own versions in July, were also suddenly pressed for time when a six-person negotiating team didn’t release a compromise version until the end of November.
With precious few days left on the calendar, the pressure to compromise, or see the bill die, also punctuated the last-minute changes.
“How do we work together — that should be the goal,” said state Representative Carlos González, a Springfield Democrat who helped negotiate the policing bill. “It shouldn’t be whether we have a majority or no majority.”
Some Democrats argue that desire for consensus helped strengthen Baker’s influence, particularly in the House, which has long been viewed as more moderate than the Senate. Before he resigned in December, former House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo would rarely shepherd major bills to the floor before they were assured to pass by yawning, veto-proof margins.
Baker rarely comments publicly on bills before they reach his desk. But that deliberate process also gave the governor time to build support for shaping the final product, said Mohammed Missouri, a former State House aide.
“He had a huge influence,” said Missouri, now director of JetPac, a nonprofit that helps engage Muslim Americans in politics. “He also has true allies in both chambers, he really does, on a whole range of policy. And he has been very good at finding different ones.”