Here is a partial list of actions Boston can’t take without permission from the Massachusetts Legislature:
Levy a new tax. Add liquor licenses. Tweak local election schedules.
Thanks to a striking concentration of power in the seat of Massachusetts government on Beacon Hill, the capital city and other Massachusetts municipalities must seek state sign-off for both substantive policy changes, such as restricting how much rents may increase each year, and more routine proposals, such as changing speed limits on some roads.
It’s a legal structure that hamstrings Boston, leaving it with far less control over its own fate than other major cities across the country. Without the ability to independently raise new revenue streams to pay for the ongoing and ever-increasing expenses of pensions, schools, and public safety, the city has limited financial flexibility for addressing its residents’ most urgent concerns, such as the skyrocketing cost of housing.
Even seemingly routine local matters can get tangled up for months in the Legislature’s sluggish process. In 2020, for example, the city sought state permission to waive a certain police age requirement for one person, Daryle LaMonica. The city (and LaMonica) waited nearly five months for approval from the state House, Senate, and governor. Former mayor Martin J. Walsh wanted to create a fire cadet program for the city; the proposal spent 501 days on Beacon Hill before becoming law.
It took a state law, and more than a year, to remove one word from the name of the State-Boston Retirement System so it could be called simply the Boston Retirement System.
Boston has no institutional voice in operations at Logan Airport, in East Boston, or the MBTA, the city’s transit lifeline. The governor, in contrast, appoints one member of the city’s planning board. For decades, Massachusetts governors, not Boston mayors, selected the city’s police commissioners.
The city-state power imbalance is in part the century-old relic of ethnic warfare between the Brahmins, who dominated Beacon Hill, and the Irish, who earned steadily increasing political power in Boston at the start of the 20th century. As the Irish came to control the capital city, the old ruling class consolidated their power at the state level. That strife, coupled with the 1966 approval of a constitutional home rule amendment that has left municipal power limited in Massachusetts, puts Boston at a competitive disadvantage, researchers have argued.
The longstanding restrictions on city power may grow particularly grating under new Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who has laid out an ambitious agenda that will depend, in large part, on sign-off from state lawmakers and the governor.
“The state law that inhibits local decision-making with regard to things like taxing and borrowing and land-use decisions puts Boston at a competitive disadvantage,” said Keith Mahoney, who served as City Hall’s director of state relations under former mayor Thomas M. Menino. “The legislative process is designed to be deliberate. But sometimes that pace of deliberation doesn’t match with the pace of change necessary or desired by local officials.”
A 2007 report from The Boston Foundation found that Boston had far less power over its own affairs than peer cities such as New York, Denver, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, and Seattle. Boston’s limited ability to raise new sources of revenue leaves the city heavily dependent on property taxes, incentivizing officials to prioritize commercial development, the report argued.
In Massachusetts, municipalities often seek Beacon Hill permission through so-called home-rule petitions, local policy pitches that are filed as bills at the state house and require the approval of the House, Senate, and governor to become law.
Few make it that far. Even though Democrats control the Legislature and the city, Boston mayors have a poor track record of getting their priorities through.
A Boston City Council staff analysis found that of the roughly 100 home-rule petitions Boston filed with the Legislature from 2011 to 2021, fewer than half became law. Successful petitions, on average, lingered nearly 10 months before Beacon Hill granted final approval. The petitions that tend to have more success are mundane administrative matters, while substantive proposals are more likely to languish and die. And in the past decade, the analysis shows, just one home-rule petition has been approved in less than a month.
Those dreary prospects now face Wu as she pitches her agenda to a Legislature known to prefer a glacial pace and to be skeptical of progressive ideas that collide with vested interests.
Wu acknowledged that the home-rule petition system limits Boston but said she is determined to forge ahead both with partnership in state government and through action the city can take independently.
“Would I take more flexibility and the ability for city government, directly, to move faster? Absolutely. Any day,” Wu told the Globe. But, she added, “we will make whatever system work.”
Wu’s ability to work that system will be tested in the coming months as she pursues rent control, a tax on high-dollar real estate sales, and a proposal designed to make it easier for women- and people of color-owned businesses to apply for city contracts.
Likewise, three Boston city councilors are sure to encounter state obstacles as they push for hundreds more liquor licenses, arguing they are needed to boost entrepreneurs of color in places like Mattapan, which is one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods but has just 10 of Boston’s 1,400-plus liquor licenses. Their proposal, which still needs local approval before it is sent to Beacon Hill for consideration, would also increase the number of licenses in Boston by 10 percent over a decade, a provision that could spare the city from having to return to the Legislature for another permission slip.
Councilor Brian Worrell, whose district includes Mattapan and Dorchester and who is one of the measure’s sponsors, said the additional licenses are crucial for achieving equity for the city’s neighborhoods of color and lamented that they can’t be granted more quickly with local approval.
“We’re talking about someone from Springfield making decisions, or someone from Ludlow making decisions, on if the city of Boston needs more liquor licenses,” Worrell said. “It sounds like it should be reformed, right?”
But changing that system would be difficult, he acknowledged: “You’d have to get the approval of the people who hold that power, in order to relinquish that power.”
The Legislature could grant cities more power over specific issues, like a certain tax, by passing new laws, but it would require a constitutional amendment to change or repeal the current home-rule power structure entirely.
Neither appears at all likely. Representatives for the governor, speaker of the Massachusetts House, and Senate president did not respond to questions from the Globe about whether they would support changes to the current home-rule protocols.
Rick Su, an expert in local government law at the University of North Carolina School of Law, likened Massachusetts cities to children who have to ask a parent: “Can I have permission to go to sleep? Can I have permission to stand up?”
Su argued that the precise language of Massachusetts law gives cities more power than they make use of but that state and local officials, as well as state courts, have come to interpret their authority narrowly, leading municipalities to a “culture of helplessness.”
“If you imagine that the purpose of local government is that they should be able to tailor creative responses to their local circumstances and be able to respond more quickly than the state or the federal government, then having this process in which pretty much everything, you ask for permission and it’s several years, completely destroys the whole purpose,” Su said. “Why have local governments at all?”
Critics say municipal minutiae are not the best use of the Legislature’s time. (Among the matters assigned to the Legislature’s committee on municipalities: legislation on moped rentals in Oak Bluffs, health benefits for Swansea water commissioners, and a building permit surcharge in Winchester.)
Still, some argue it is important to have uniform state policy, particularly in Massachusetts, where many of the 351 municipalities are tiny.
“What we try to do is develop long-range, blanket policies that hold for the majority of time and majority of instances, except when there’s an exception,” said state Representative Liz Malia, a longtime Boston Democrat who filed a bill seeking to adjust certain speed limits.
“Maintaining some kind of uniform policy around general rules makes the most sense, and in order to make a change, the city or town has to make a case for why there are extraordinary circumstances.”
Rent control — a hallmark pitch of Wu’s campaign that polling has shown most likely Boston voters support — may prove particularly contentious. After voters banned it in a 1994 statewide referendum, rent control cannot be implemented in Boston or anywhere else without sign-off from the state Legislature, which has so far shown very little appetite for approving it.
It’s a measure that seems more logical — and has historically had more popular support — in expensive and densely populated Eastern Massachusetts communities like Boston, Cambridge, and Brookline than in rural communities in the western part of the state and suburban towns in its center. But should the issue be debated in the Legislature, its fate will be decided by representatives of Boston and Belchertown alike. And the decision won’t come quickly.
Wu acknowledged the “unpredictable” timing at the Legislature but said, “the goal is that we should be moving at the urgency of our community, rather than the usual pace of government.”