Governor Charlie Baker formally kicked off his reelection campaign over the weekend with a speech framing himself as a thrifty steward of taxpayer dollars who had spent almost four years reforming state government to better serve Massachusetts’ 6.9 million residents. Thematically, the Republican didn’t break any surprising ground, building on how he framed his successful 2014 campaign for the corner office.
Still, the remarks offered Baker’s clearest case yet for why voters should choose him over pastor Scott Lively in the Sept. 4 GOP primary. And why, presuming he’s the nominee, voters should cast their ballots for Baker on Nov. 6 over the Democratic nominee, either former state budget chief Jay Gonzalez or entrepreneur and environmentalist Bob Massie.
Let’s dig into some of Baker’s claims:
■ “We will always stand with the taxpayers of Massachusetts.”
Despite pledging not to raise taxes or fees when he campaigned in 2014, Baker has signed into law new taxes, fees, and assessments totaling more than a billion dollars. The extra cash will go to arguably good causes: paid leave for sick employees, police training, health care for the poor, for example. But Baker’s claim may ring hollow for those taxpayers who feel they’ve been “nickel-and-dimed to death over the course of the past few years” — his 2014 campaign phrase.
Separately on taxes, Baker has trumpeted increases in the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit — a program that helps about 450,000 low-income working families in Massachusetts — that he has signed into law. He’s heralded the increases as a “tax break” for working families.
But he’s had much less to say on the new payroll tax that will go into effect next year, pulling an estimated $800 million each year from employers and employees to support a nation-leading paid family and medical leave program. He signed that new tax as part of a “Grand Bargain” law that will also raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2023, eventually eliminate time-and-half pay on Sundays and holidays, and create a yearly sales tax holiday.
Baker has also imposed an increased health care fee on employers, set to bring in about $250 million in the current fiscal year. He’s framed it as a fairness measure aimed primarily at employers who have workers covered by the state’s Medicaid program rather than private insurance. But some business groups see it as another burdensome new tax.
■ “We brought the MassHealth program under control.”
The state-federal Medicaid program known as MassHealth pays for no-deductible health care for more than 1.8 million poor and disabled residents.
In the 2015 fiscal year, which straddled the terms of governors Deval Patrick and Baker, Medicaid expenditures increased by 14.9 percent, far outpacing inflation and tax revenue growth. That huge uptick in cost was due to several factors. One was expanded Medicaid eligibility under the federal Affordable Care Act. Another: the catastrophic breakdown in Massachusetts’ Health Connector system, which resulted in many people being put into the Medicaid system without the state knowing their eligibility.
In the fiscal year ended in June, MassHealth spending went up 4.7 percent.
Medicaid spending before federal reimbursement still makes up about 40 percent of the state budget. And the program remains on a trajectory that outside experts say is not sustainable in the long term.
While some administration efforts to change the program have been thwarted by the Legislature — like one to move 140,000 low-income adults off Medicaid and onto private health care plans — Baker can very plausibly argue he’s helped bring the program’s growth under control, specialists say.
“MassHealth’s growth has slowed in recent years due to a number of factors, including the Baker administration’s efforts around eligibility and . . . program integrity,” said Eileen McAnneny, president of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. “But also because of a robust economy that has improved individuals’ financial position so they are no longer eligible. These are all positive steps, but MassHealth continues to outpace other spending areas in the budget and the crowd-out will continue without more systemic reforms.”
■ “We reduced the size of the bureaucracy.”
A few months after he began his term in 2015, there were 45,000 full-time equivalent employees under his authority. Today, there are 42,000, according to the state’s latest formal bond disclosure. The broader state workforce has also shrunk, from 88,000 to 85,000 in that timeframe, according the document dated Aug. 1.
Whether that’s been a positive development is a valid point of debate.
On the one hand, the administration argues it’s still delivering the high-quality services residents expect just more efficiently. And other high-functioning states with similar populations have smaller state workforces.
On the other hand, Baker critics point to the state rehiring hundreds of employees who took advantage of a Baker-initiated pension-sweetening early retirement program, putting them back on the payroll in part-time jobs, according to the Boston Herald.
■ “The largest investment in K through 12 education in state history.”
In this year’s budget, Baker and the Democratic-controlled Legislature have indeed invested more in K-12 education than ever before — a whopping $4.9 billion, by one measure. But that superlative has been true almost every year in recent history. Costs go up. Spending goes up.
The trend may be laudable. But it’s not particularly notable, experts say.
“Every year, except for during recessions, the state spends a little bit more on education. But costs go up, also,” said Noah Berger, president of the left-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. “The major education debate in the Legislature this year was about whether to close the gap between what we spend on education and what it would take to provide high-quality education in every district,” he said, referring to a bill that ended up dying in a joint House-Senate committee last month.
“Ultimately, that’s the issue that will determine the quality of education in Massachusetts,” Berger said.