Is Charlie Baker really Mr. Fix-It?
The year-end reviews are pouring in, and Democrats and Republicans alike are gushing about the governor’s freshman year. People marvel at his managerial skills and his ability to work across the aisle. He’s taking care of the MBTA, straightening out the Department of Children and Families, solving the opioid crisis, all while snapping picture-perfect selfies!
No wonder the people of the Commonwealth just love this guy and have made him the most popular governor in America.
Me? I like Baker. I like that he is our governor. But let’s all put down our rose-colored glasses. He hasn’t fixed the T or the DCF, and reducing drug abuse is still a work in progress. Baker may some day do all of this, but in my book his inaugural year is defined by what he hasn’t done.
A better moniker would be Mr. Nix-It.
Signing off on a $1 billion expansion of the convention center in South Boston? No.
Full steam ahead on the extension of the Green Line and late-night T service? No.
Supporting Boston’s bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics? No.
Creating a state fund to pay for public art? No.
Voters of Massachusetts, we elected Governor No.
Now some people will tell you that saying no — especially for a politician — is a virtue. Eileen McAnneny, for one, appreciates Baker’s fiscal restraint.
“Sometimes you have to be willing to say no. That is a big part of governing,” said McAnneny, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a fiscal watchdog group. “Everyone wants to be able to have signature projects. If you don’t have money, it makes governing less fun.”
Speaking of money, patching up the state budget is another so-called fix-it moment. Remember all the belly-aching in January about how the Patrick administration had left the state with what ending up being a budget deficit of more than $1 billion?
With much fanfare, Baker instituted a slew of cuts and vowed not to tap the rainy-day fund. Turns out the solutions weren’t as heroic. Cost-cutting and the diversion of $300 million that normally would be deposited in the state’s rainy-day fund helped Beacon Hill close the shortfall. The state then benefited from an unexpected $300 million bump in revenue collected from capital gains taxes, which instead of going to the rainy-day fund went to pad the budget. That’s how the state ended the fiscal year in June with a $220 million surplus.
Yes, things probably would have been worse without Baker trained on the bottom line, but the measures included a bunch of one-time Band-Aids that now have McAnneny’s group sounding the alarm about a $1 billion budget shortfall in the next fiscal year.
It will be hard for the Baker administration to divert rainy-day money again without risking a downgrade from the credit agencies. The gimmicks used before — such as early retirement and tax amnesty programs — aren’t available.
Talk to the Baker administration, and they think he’s Mr. Fix-It. The budget is in better shape, the Massachusetts Health Connector works, the lines at the Registry of Motor Vehicles have shrunk, medical marijuana dispensaries have opened, and more than 400,000 working families will see lower tax bills.
Ask the governor, and he says he had a long to-do list when he came into office.
“We inherited a number of things that didn’t work,” Baker said. “Those became major priorities of ours.”
Yes, he got a lot of things to work again, but don’t think we can declare his work done, perhaps with one exception. From the sound of it, the Baker administration might have solved the problem of interminable waits at motor vehicle registries with a combination of the right staffing and technology. The state is rolling out the new protocol to all locations now, but early results are impressive. For example, the Haymarket registry served 73 percent of its customers in under 30 minutes in November, compared with 49 percent a year earlier.
But what about the big-ticket items like the T and the DCF? This is when you begin to realize why Baker has become an endearing figure. He’s careful not to oversell his administration’s accomplishments.
“We have a long way to go on all kinds of things,” Baker said.
Overhauling the intake and investigative process for DCF is a big deal, the governor pointed out, but the training won’t be complete until March.
“Again, not done yet,” he said, but “absolutely moving in the right direction.”
As for the MBTA, Baker says the new fiscal control board will put our transit system on the right track.
“Everything took place behind the curtain for years there,” Baker said. “It’s one of the healthiest things that has happened.”
Sounds like Baker would rather call himself Mr. Working-On-It. And that’s OK. He’s got three more years to become Mr. Fix-It.
Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.