Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday signed into law a $52.7 billion budget for the current fiscal year, accepting the vast majority of what Massachusetts lawmakers sent him, but vetoing a handful of proposals and returning some sections with his changes.
In a last-dash effort to get a priority piece of legislation into law, a fired-up Baker rewrote a policy rider and added in a proposal aimed at protecting survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault from facing their abusers before trial by allowing a court to hold people suspected of certain dangerous crimes without bail.
The change was tethered to a section that would provide free phone calls to inmates.
Massachusetts law gives the governor the ability to veto specific budget line items, as well as return specific policy sections with amendments or vetoes. The vetoes stand unless the Legislature chooses to override them with a two-thirds majority vote — an action they might hardly have time for as they work through a logjam of legislation before the session ends on July 31.
Lawmakers must act on the amendments for them to become law, meaning they will likely have to address Baker’s dangerousness proposal if they wish to revisit a budget measure to include the free phone calls in this year’s spending plan.
Lawmakers last week sent Baker’s dangerousness bill to study, effectively killing it. In response, on Monday, Baker held a roundtable with survivors to discuss the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary’s decision.
That led one of the committee’s cochairs, Representative Michael S. Day, to call the Republican governor’s effort a “well-crafted public relations tour.”
Senator Jamie Eldridge, Day’s cochair, echoed the sentiment to State House News Service, calling the effort “a pretty consistent PR campaign.”
On Thursday, Baker, showing an unusual amount of public anger, told reporters those comments were “harsh, cold, and callous.”
“The House and Senate Chairs of the Judiciary Committee dismissed as a political stunt the courage of these brave victims in appearing in person at the State House to share their stories,” Baker wrote in his amendment language, which was filed Thursday. “Providing free phone calls, a benefit our state government provides to no one else, to inmates while dismissing the pleas of victims of crime is contrary to the traditions of, and frankly beneath the dignity of, the Massachusetts Legislature.”
On Tuesday, Public Safety and Security Secretary Terrence Reidy sent a letter to Eldridge and Day, pleading for them to pass a compromise bill with narrower language.
“This bill is too important to let it die this session,” Reidy wrote. “We are willing to meet with you whenever and wherever to get a compromise done on this.”
Day told The Boston Globe in a statement Thursday that “irrespective of the fact that the Governor has resorted to using the bully pulpit to engage in personal attacks, we remain focused on the actual language,” and noted that Baker’s amendment still “appears to contain significant due process problems that the administration seems to be unwilling to rectify.”
“We will not exploit the survivor community for political gain,” he said. “Instead, we will continue to listen to survivors and speak honestly with them about the impacts of various bills before the Judiciary Committee.”
Eldridge said Baker’s comments Thursday were “a bit untethered. "
“I am disappointed the governor made this so personal,” he told the Globe. “I absolutely think this is a fairly political, strategic maneuver by the governor to get his way on something that has had legitimate concerns raised . . . and it’s a shame to connect [incarcerated people’s] plights [on paying a lot for phone calls] to a separate issue where the Legislature and governor have a disagreement.”
Baker’s dangerousness amendment is slightly narrower than his original proposal. It allows for prosecutors to request a dangerousness hearing for people accused of an expanded list of certain crimes, such as sex offenses involving children and human trafficking. It also creates a new felony offense for people who tamper with ankle monitors or other pretrial conditions and requires notice be given to alleged victims before a suspect is released from custody.
Unlike Baker’s earlier proposal, an accused person’s criminal history cannot be factored into the prosecutor’s request.
Under existing state law, prosecutors can call for a dangerousness hearing in certain cases such as felony offense that involve the use of physical force, burglary, and arson, but the law has limitations Baker has said pose risks to victims and other members of the public.
Advocacy groups like the ACLU of Massachusetts have opposed the bill, and have said Baker’s dangerousness proposal could increase racial inequities in the court system and that it undermines bail reform that was a crucial part of a 2018 criminal justice reform bill.
At a roundtable discussion at the State House on Monday, a domestic abuse survivor told those gathered she was beyond disappointed and hurt the bill was jettisoned by the Judiciary Committee.
She questioned whether the committee members heard their painful stories of being slapped across the face, spit upon, demoralized, and raped.
“The action of the Judiciary Committee is shameful, it’s insulting and it’s disrespectful to all of us,” she said. “I believed that by sharing my horrible experiences I would prevent others from going through the same. I allowed myself to be vulnerable. I risked my safety, and by retelling my story I found myself reliving my abuse and having many emotional days.”
Another survivor who participated in Monday’s roundtable told the Globe on Thursday she was relieved to see Baker’s dangerousness bill revived.
“It’s very much a victory for us. It’s a start, that’s for sure,” the woman, who asked to be identified only as Jo, said in a telephone interview.
The provision that would make it a crime to tamper with or remove a GPS ankle monitor was especially pertinent to Jo.
She survived three years in an abusive relationship. Her abuser, she said, cut off his GPS device, and never faced any consequences for it.
The Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state agency that provides legal representation for those who can’t afford a lawyer, spoke out against Baker’s proposal Thursday.
“When people are locked up before trial, their lives are upended,” agency chief counsel Anthony Benedetti said in a statement. “The presumption of innocence means something, and expanding this law would negatively affect how our legal system operates. This bill presumes guilt. It punishes without process. It hurts our neighbors and our communities.”
In addition to his amendment on dangerousness, Baker also amended a piece of the budget that would reshape the MBTA’s board by adding two seats, which originally mandated one named by Boston’s mayor and another named by other municipalities served by the T. The amendment allows Boston’s mayor to recommend three names, and for the governor to pick one of those three. The amendment also added the requirement the chosen board member have transit experience.
Baker vetoed $475,000 in gross spending, according to a spokesman, and returned 41 items to the Legislature with proposed amendments, including the dangerousness piece and changes to the MBTA board makeup.
Big budget increases go toward housing and homelessness investments, and Baker said the final budget factors in permanent tax cuts for residents, though that financial relief is still being ironed out in an omnibus economic development bill currently being negotiated among lawmakers.
The largest portion of the budget Baker signed went toward health care for the poor, with gross appropriations toward MassHealth totaling $19.5 billion, or 37 percent of the total budget.
Tonya Alanez of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.