Stephan Savoia/Associated Press
Charlie Baker should be riding high this week, with a fresh set of poll numbers affirming he’s once again the nation’s most popular governor, and the home team headed to the Super Bowl.
Instead, the Republican, who was vacationing in the mountains of Utah on Friday, is taking heat after two defeats on critical initiatives related to energy and health care this week.
The administration’s pick for a project to increase the amount of renewable energy used in the state — announced just last week — was dealt what could be a dire setback Thursday, when New Hampshire officials denied a key permit to build 192 miles of transmission lines.
Also Thursday, the state agency that oversees health benefits for hundreds of thousands of public employees, retirees, and their families — over which Baker has considerable control — reversed course. The Group Insurance Commission abandoned a plan to save money by limiting coverage options, which had prompted an outcry from state and municipal employees, and the unions that represent them.
Democratic opponents of Baker, who is seeking a second term this year, piled on. New Hampshire’s action “underscores what an incredibly bad decision Charlie Baker’s administration made in giving away the state’s largest renewable energy procurement to Eversource,” said Jay Gonzalez, a former state budget chief, referring to the energy conglomerate that is at the center of the bid that was selected.
“Recognize what @MassGovernor tried to do here: tinker with health care by trying to restrict coverage and raise costs for patients,” tweeted former Newton mayor Setti Warren about the original health insurance decision.
Despite the criticism, observers said, Baker may escape unscathed.
“It’s probably not going to dent his popularity,” said Peter N. Ubertaccio, a professor of political science at Stonehill College. (A Morning Consult poll of 254,000 registered voters released Thursday found Baker had the highest job approval rating, 69 percent, of any governor in country from Oct. 1 - Dec. 31.)
“I don’t think either of these issues is going to do lasting harm to him,” said Jeffrey M. Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University.
He said the energy decision, prompted by a state law that mandates utilities to buy large amounts of clean energy and in service of another state law that mandates reduction in carbon emissions, is simply not on most people’s minds.
And Ubertaccio said that voters are unlikely to penalize Baker for the decision to pick the Eversource consortium because the administration doesn’t have control over a New Hampshire oversight decision.
(Administration officials said when they announced the decision that if the group selected does not successfully negotiate contracts, it may result in other bids being selected.)
On the health care kerfuffle, which left many people who receive health care coverage through the state worried they could lose access to certain medical providers or benefits, both professors said the Republican was unlikely to suffer any lasting damage to his reputation.
The Group Insurance Commission, which provides health insurance coverage for about 442,000 people, voted in January for a plan aimed at simplifying coverage and cutting costs. It would have done that, in part, by taking away its members’ ability to stay on popular commercial health plans from Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Tufts Health Plan, and Fallon Health. The change would have forced about 200,000 state and local employees and their families to move to coverage under three lesser-known health insurers.
But after a deafening outcry, the commission, which is appointed by the governor with input from cities, towns, and unions, changed course.
Ubertaccio said “it’s hard to lay blame at the feet of the governor for the actions of any board,” especially one where he did not have full control over all the appointments.
And even though the pushback was fierce, Berry said, the quick reversal may spare Baker.
“He beat a hasty retreat when the opposition became apparent,” the professor said. Baker “has a deftness in escaping harm before too much damage is done. He’s willing to go back and compromise, rather than getting caught up in sunk costs and fighting to the end. Beneath the wonkish exterior lies a very political man ... attuned to the changing tides of public opinion.”
In a statement, the governor’s top spokeswoman, Lizzy Guyton, said the state is now “closer than ever to securing the largest amount of renewable energy in our state’s history thanks to the bipartisan efforts of the legislature and administration.”
And, she said, the state’s energy and environmental agency will continue to execute the process required by law.
On the insurance issue, Guyton said “saving taxpayers millions of dollars to cover the costs of public sector employees’ health care, while maintaining reduced costs, networks and benefits for public workers is the appropriate course for the [Group Insurance Commission], and the administration looks forward to the commission better engaging all stakeholders for future improvements.”
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