Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday defended his decision to mandate that state workers under him, including State Police, be vaccinated against COVID-19, and lamented not having a “magic combination” to convince holdouts to get inoculated.
Baker’s comments came amid a wide-ranging radio interview in which he voiced support for the idea behind a legislative proposal to give bonus checks to essential workers and suggested he’s unlikely to sign a bill, should it reach his desk, to reinstitute rent control in Boston, where the issue looms large in the mayoral race between Michelle Wu, a rent control backer, and Annissa Essaibi George, who opposes it.
Making a regular appearance on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio,” Baker acknowledged he’s faced criticisms for instituting one of the country’s strictest vaccine mandates, which required that executive branch employees get vaccinated, seek an exemption by this month, or face the potential of being fired.
Nearly 1,600 state employees had not proven they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 or sought an exemption on medical or religious grounds as of Oct. 17, the state-imposed deadline. His administration said that 95 percent of roughly 44,000 workers, including contractors, were in compliance with the order Baker issued in mid-August.
But the Baker administration has yet to say how many exemptions it has since denied or approved, how many employees have been suspended or terminated, or for which departments those who remain unvaccinated work.
The union representing State Police troopers has been among the most vocal in its pushback — including unsuccessfully suing to block the deadline — and as of Saturday, said that at least a dozen troopers who sought an exemption had been told that they would need to be vaccinated or face termination.
Baker aides have said that roughly 90 percent of State Police personnel have complied with the order.
“I don’t think I’m being unreasonable when I expect them, for themselves and their families, and for the people they come in contact with every single day, to get a safe and effective vaccine,” Baker said of State Police.
Baker said it “doesn’t make any sense to me to be angry” about those who don’t get vaccinated. But the second-term Republican, who is vaccinated, suggested there’s a level of frustration in being unable to push those who don’t want a shot to consider getting one.
“I wish I can just figure out what makes the sale. I know they’re safe, I know they’re effective,” he said of vaccines. “I wish I had the magic combination here to get them over the line.”
Baker also waded into issues front and center in the Boston mayoral race. Baker, a Swampscott resident, declined to say who he would vote for between Wu and Essaibi George if he could. But he appeared to soften in his opposition to a measure on rent control, which he previously called “exactly the wrong direction we should go.”
Asked if he would sign a bill reinstituting it in Boston, Baker said “probably not.”
“But I’m going to leave the door open a little bit because maybe there’s something that could be done to deal with this,” Baker said.
He added that he considers rent control “as it was originally envisioned” unfair, relating a story that as a “young person” living in Boston, he paid market rates while older neighbors paid far less in rent-controlled apartments.
“It really does affect development of new housing. And Lord knows, here in Massachusetts and the city of Boston, we need a lot of new housing,” Baker said.
The concept has repeatedly surfaced in the mayoral race, including in the final debate Tuesday when Essaibi George challenged Wu over her support of rent stabilization. Essaibi George said that rent stabilization, which she equated to rent control, will freeze rents at very high levels and push out residents who would like to stay in the city.
Wu denied that assertion, arguing that “many units” across the city are already restricted at affordable prices.
Massachusetts voters in 1994 narrowly banned rent control statewide. A home rule petition instituting some form of it in Boston would also need to pass the Democratic-controlled Legislature and then Baker’s desk to become law.
Baker’s radio appearance followed a day after top Massachusetts lawmakers unveiled a sweeping plan to spend $3.65 billion in federal stimulus money and state surplus funds, including to set aside a half-billion dollars for bonuses to essential workers.
Under the plan, the state would dedicate $460 million for so-called “premium pay bonuses” for low-income essential workers, who to be eligible, could make up to 300 percent above the federal poverty limit and worked in-person during the state’s 16-month COVID-19 state of emergency.
Baker cautioned that he wants to see more details on the plan, but offered support for the idea. The bill separately would commit $40 million for bonuses of up to $2,000 for “front-line state employees” who were required to work in-person during the winter of 2020 to 2021, replicating a proposal Baker had previously filed.
“I do think conceptually this is something that is the right thing to do, and we’ll do the best we can to implement it,” Baker said of the bonuses.
Baker was less illuminating on a question he regularly fields: Does he plan to run for a third consecutive term next year? He said Tuesday that he intends to make a decision soon, a refrain he’s repeated for months. But said he’s still weighing both professional and personal considerations — without saying what they are.
“It’s a very complicated issue, for all kinds of reasons,” Baker said.
It is fair to assume then, cohost Jim Braude asked, that he’s already made a decision, but just isn’t ready to reveal it?
“No,” Baker said flatly, “it’s not.”
Should Baker run, he’d face a primary opponent in Geoff Diehl, a former state lawmaker who has seized on Baker’s vaccine mandate. The Whitman Republican, who opposes the order, on Tuesday released a digital ad dubbed “Stabbed in the Back” highlighting that Baker, too, had publicly spoken against the idea of a mandate before issuing his order in mid-August.
Travis Andersen and Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.