Did Charlie Baker keep his campaign promises?
Four years ago, he promised not to raise taxes. He pledged to reform the troubled Department of Children and Families. He said he’d fight the opioid crisis, expand a key tax credit for the working poor, spend 1 percent of the state budget on the environment, improve efficiency at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and do much, much more if voters sent him to the corner office.
Now, running for reelection, Republican Governor Charlie Baker faces the most basic political question: Did he keep the promises he made before he took office?
The Globe reviewed Baker’s 2014 campaign proposals, pledges from debates, hundreds of news releases, and media interviews; consulted policy experts; and, ultimately, found a mixed bag.
Baker, 61, has notched clear victories, with some still works in progress. He has also fallen far short on other promises as he prepares to face Democratic nominee Jay Gonzalez on Nov. 6.
And while some major policy issues Baker has grappled with in office were not a focus of his campaign four years ago — fixing the MBTA, for one — he did make pledges on issues that have become key parts of his record.
PROMISE: Won’t raise taxes or fees
VERDICT: Promise broken
Perhaps the most resonant pledge Baker made on the 2014 campaign trail was that he would hold the line on taxes and fees, a contrast he worked to build with Democrat Martha Coakley.
“I’ve said repeatedly that I will not raise taxes, the attorney general will,” he said that September.
“I think it’s important to send a message to employers, small businesses, everybody in Massachusetts — many of whom feel they’ve been nickel-and-dimed to death over the course of the past few years — that we’re not going to just raise taxes to figure out how to pay the bills,” he said at one October television debate.
“I’m not going to raise fees,” he said at another.
After he won, he affirmed his no-new-taxes-no-new-fees pledge was an irrevocable promise. But he tried to give himself some wiggle room, telling the Globe that if the state offered a new service and attached a fee to it, he didn’t think he would be breaking his commitment.
He broke his fee pledge within months with a $1 surcharge for admission and parking at the Douglas State Forest to fund maintenance and public safety there. (The administration’s explanation at the time: It was “at the request of local officials” and part of a “bipartisan budget.”) A year later Baker signed into law a 20-cent-per-ride “assessment” — a fee — on ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft. (Explanation at the time: It pays for a new service as the state began regulating ride-sharing companies, and won’t be passed on to customers.)
But the big one came in 2017: an assessment on some employers to help cover the cost of the state’s Medicaid program for the poor and disabled. It adds up to $260 million this fiscal year. (Explanation: It’s a temporary fairness fee for employers whose workers end up on the Medicaid program.)
This year, Baker signed off on a new fee imposing a $2 surcharge on car rental transactions to put up to $10 million toward training for local police. (Baker’s explanation: “The Legislature pursued this particular path.”)
And the clearest abrogation of his tax promise came this summer when he signed a grand bargain bill between liberal activists, the business community, and the Legislature to avoid divisive ballot fights. That law raises the minimum wage, mandates a yearly sales tax holiday, ends Sunday and holiday pay, and creates a nation-leading paid family and medical leave program.
To pay for the leave program, the law institutes an estimated $800 million payroll tax, split between employers and employees, starting next year. (Explanation: New service.)
Baker also promised to lead an efficient, fiscally responsible government, and aides emphasized where that pledge has been kept: from reducing the number of employees under his authority (45,000 in June 2015 to 42,000 in July) to increasing the state’s rainy day fund by about 60 percent to reducing the budget’s reliance on unstable revenue sources.
PROMISE: He will double the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which helps poor working people
VERDICT: Promise kept
On the campaign trail it was a key part of Baker’s economic agenda. “Doubling the state’s EITC to 30 percent of the federal program would put even more money in the pockets of single moms and working families and give them greater financial stability,” a campaign news release declared in June 2014.
Baker pointed to research showing the credit’s beneficial impact and, after he won, found common ground with Democratic legislators on expanding it.
The governor signed an increase in the state credit in 2015, and boosted it again, to 30 percent of the federal one, when he put his John Hancock on the budget this year. It’s poised to help 450,000 filers.
PROMISE: Increase total local aid, including education, to municipalities at the same rate revenues grow
Baker vowed in a February 2014 “community contract” plan to never cut aid to cities and towns, and to hike it — “including education funding and unrestricted aid” — at the same rate as state revenue growth.
The pledge hasn’t totally lived up to expectations. Yes, aid has increased under Baker, and unrestricted aid — money towns and cities could put toward any number of priorities — has grown at the same rate as revenue.
But when combined with local education funding, the annual increase in total aid has topped 3 percent only once — when it grew by 3.2 percent this fiscal year from last — lagging behind the projected revenue increases upon which each of the last four budgets were built.
Baker aides note that actual tax revenue has differed from what bean counters anticipated, and in some years, total aid ended up growing faster than revenue, which slowed in fiscal years 2016 and 2017. “As a former local official, Governor Baker made increasing support for cities and towns across Massachusetts a priority since day one,” said spokeswoman Sarah Finlaw.
Municipal leaders feel Baker has followed through, giving towns the yearly budget stability they crave. Geoff Beckwith, of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said Baker first made the pledge to the organization at its January 2014 annual meeting — and specifically tied it to unrestricted aid.
“We think the budgets filed by the governor have met those commitments,” he said.
PROMISE: Reform DCF following a string of high-profile tragedies
VERDICT: Improvement, but a work in progress
As Baker campaigned, the Department of Children and Families was in the throes of one of its most difficult periods. It was grappling with the death of Jeremiah Oliver, a state-commissioned report criticized it for relying on outdated policies, and a series of other tragic cases prompted many — Baker included — to call for its then-commissioner to be fired.
It ultimately left Baker, the candidate, promising to do what many governors have pledged before: to change the agency.
So far, he can cite progress. In the last four years, the agency’s state-funded budget has grown by $180 million, helping to hire hundreds of new social workers and reduce caseloads. Those dropped from an average of 22 per worker in June 2016 to 19 per worker in October 2017.
Baker, who once said the agency should take a “region by region” approach, also reopened the department’s shuttered central regional office in 2016, and he’s weaved in several new policies since 2015. Baker aides also note he’s doubled the number of substance abuse specialists — from five to 10 — and hired a full-time medical director.
But advocates say that what fruit all this bears may not be visible for years, and the ultimate goal of creating better outcomes for children is still to be determined.
“In many aspects, he has kept his promises,” said Peter MacKinnon, president of SEIU 509, which represents social workers. In 2014, the union endorsed Coakley, but has since closely worked with Baker, who gave the union “significant input.” Now, MacKinnon said, Baker needs to put a greater focus on training and implementing policy, which has been “uneven at best.”
“The system didn’t become broken overnight,” MacKinnon said. “It’s not going to be fixed overnight.”
PROMISE: End the practice of sheltering homeless families in motels at taxpayer expense by the end of his first term
VERDICT: On track
Massachusetts has long been the only right-to-shelter state. When poor families can show they are homeless for an eligible reason like domestic violence or no-fault eviction, the state is mandated to provide housing.
When state-contracted shelters are full, families are placed in motels, a type of lodging that experts say is often inadequate, separating kids from a clean place for them to play, easy access to public transportation, and kitchen equipment.
On the campaign trail, Baker said he would “work to eliminate” the use of motels for homeless families by the end of his first year. He put an even finer point on his promise on Christmas Eve 2014, a night when 1,580 families were in taxpayer-funded motels: “We’ll get that number down to zero before the end of our four years,” the governor-elect said.
Early in his tenure, Baker proposed narrowing eligibility for emergency housing. Advocates warned that could leave Massachusetts’ most vulnerable kids on the streets and the Legislature rebuffed the effort.
The administration has steadily reduced the number of families in motels, from 1,500 when Baker took office to 38 Friday night.
While some advocates laud that there are fewer families in motels, many say a successful homeless policy is doing what is best for each individual family. That is, Baker keeping the spirit of his promise may mean never literally fulfilling it.
“There’s been incredible progress in reducing the reliance on motels — and also in understanding that some motel use provides flexibility in accommodating people with disabilities and keeping people closer to their home communities until a housing, shelter, or other alternative is available,” said Libby Hayes, who leads Homes for Families.
PROMISE: Improve efficiency at the long-beleaguered Registry of Motor Vehicles
VERDICT: Promise mostly kept
On the eve of the 2014 election, Baker told reporters in what was essentially his closing pitch that the Registry of Motor Vehicles is “going to be a very different place” if he was elected, holding it up as an example of his pitch to make government more efficient.
And RMV wait times — which aides say were “out of control” before he took office — dropped sharply under a new queuing system. The results: In November 2014, 59 percent of RMV customers were served in under 30 minutes, and by mid-2017, it was up to 80 percent.
But the progress hit a major snag this spring when the state implemented a new driver’s license system known as Real ID — a change Baker, as a candidate, vowed to implement while promising that they “only go to legal residents.” (The new type of ID complies with stricter federal requirements.)
In the immediate aftermath, some wait times stretched to as long as five hours, and it had a major impact systemwide. By the end of the fiscal year, state data showed that 8 percent of RMV customers had waited more than an hour — double the share of the previous year — and 72 percent waited 30 minutes or less.
Baker aides argue the agency has already started to rebound, reaffirming his pledge. In August, for example, 79 percent of customers waited a half-hour or less. But the shifts underscore the challenge of always keeping the lines moving.