Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday pledged more aggressive action in tackling climate change and the region’s transportation woes, using his State of the Commonwealth address to press for increased MBTA funding, quicker cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, and stronger support for a hotly debated carbon pact.
Addressing lawmakers and a television audience, the second-term Republican laced his 35-minute speech with new initiatives and attempts to rally the Democratic-led Legislature behind many of his biggest priorities.
Baker vowed to move the state toward net-zero emissions by 2050, effectively accelerating the goals already laid out in law. His pledge won early plaudits from advocates who’ve pushed for more ambitious action on climate change.
Baker, who has generally opposed calls to raise taxes to funnel more money into the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, proposed $135 million in additional funding in the coming fiscal year for the beleaguered agency.
And he previewed a new $15 million partnership with vocational schools that he said would “turbocharge” the training provided to both adults and teens, changes he estimates will better prepare tens of thousands of would-be trade workers.
Without invoking President Trump by name, Baker leaned into his trademark calls for pragmatism as the country barrels into a divisive campaign to elect a president in November.
“People who deal with much greater troubles than ours will rightly question us if we waste our time, and theirs, on the politics of personal destruction,” Baker told a packed House chamber. “They want us to be better than the yelling they see on TV and across social media.
“We all know campaigns are contests, and the siren call of sloganeering and cheap shots will be everywhere this year. Let’s rise above it,” he added to a lengthy standing ovation, one of 15 he received during the night.
In many cases, Baker’s address cited his administration’s accomplishments as much as it posed new arguments for proposals. He framed his push for a long-stalled bill to help ease the housing crunch in terms of equity, saying the status quo “has been hurting families for years.”
“Our current zoning laws aren’t working. They’re a wall between the well-off and the up-and-coming,” Baker said, adding: “Let’s find the common ground on housing policy that must be in here somewhere.”
He also refocused his argument for complex health care legislation that he said would put a greater emphasis on primary care and behavioral health services. He said the system should reward clinicians who “invest in time and connection with patients and their families,” but it does not. “And this is a major problem,” he said.
It was transportation and climate change, however, that made up large parts of his address.
The state’s Global Warming Solutions Act, signed in 2008, includes a target of 80 percent emissions reduction by 2050. Baker’s commitment to net-zero emissions by then was immediately hailed by environmental groups, many of which have been critical of him in the past. The pledge is a “crucial directive [that] puts Massachusetts in the vanguard of states and nations combating climate change,” said Brad Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation.
The Senate is preparing to unveil on Thursday its own bill addressing climate change, which Senate President Karen E. Spilka said Tuesday will include the accelerated 2050 goal. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo indicated he, too, supports the new target.
In a thinly veiled shot at the Trump administration, Baker said there have been “significant steps backward in Washington” in addressing climate change. He also trumpeted a stalled proposal he called critical to helping fund climate-resiliency projects through a tax hike on real estate transfers.
He devoted part of his speech to pitching lawmakers on a regional pact known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative, or TCI. It’s designed to curb carbon emissions but would probably raise gas prices. Without action, he said, the state won’t meet its objectives on reducing all greenhouse gas emissions.
DeLeo has promised to take up legislation this year designed to pour new revenue into the state’s public transit systems, potentially through increasing the gas tax, a hike Baker would oppose. It has made for a ripe area of debate between legislative leaders, who have expressed skepticism of TCI, and Baker, one of its most vocal supporters.
“I get that this is going to be hard,” Baker said. “But together we have a real opportunity, and more importantly, a responsibility to achieve a significant reduction in transportation emissions.”
The MBTA, especially, has been a constant source of frustration — for commuters and for the governor. Baker said the $135 million in additional money he’s proposing for the system would go toward “operating funds” and help the T implement changes a panel of experts called for in a report that concluded safety hasn’t been a priority at the agency.
Chris Dempsey — the director of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts, which has called for more funding for the T — said the extra money Baker proposed is a “necessary step” but also “a tacit acknowledgment that we need new revenue to fund our transportation system statewide.”
Spilka, however, said after Baker’s speech that she has questions about the specifics of the proposal, namely how the funds would be expended “and broken down.”
“I assume the operating budget, but where?” the Ashland Democrat said. “Clearly reliability, safety, affordability needs to be included as well as regional equity. Where else will the transportation funding be put to?”
DeLeo said that one area he hoped Baker would have addressed is the Department of Children and Families, which the governor made a focus as both a candidate and while in office. In particular, DeLeo cited the recent death of a 2-year-old Whitman girl, which the agency has said it’s investigating.
“This has been a longtime issue that I think we’ve all been interested in,” the Winthrop Democrat said of the DCF’s problems.
A near-annual event, the State of the Commonwealth address provides any governor a bullhorn for his or her administration’s work and a way to begin building momentum for initiatives.
Baker has generally avoided sweeping new plans in his speeches and instead has emphasized the “blocking and tackling” details of state government.
Tuesday’s speech offered a similar flavor, emphasizing the state’s work to expand its emergency savings account to $3.5 billion. Baker also recounted his administration’s efforts to bolster spending to fight the opioid epidemic.
But the speech lands amid a shifting political environment. The administration in 2019 weathered perhaps its most challenging stretch of Baker’s five-plus years in office, in which it juggled high-profile failures at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, the MBTA’s struggles, and the continuing fallout from a State Police overtime fraud scandal.
And after back-to-back years of budget surpluses topping $1 billion, the state is expected to enter a far more challenging fiscal year that could force Baker and lawmakers to make unpopular decisions. That includes carving out more money to begin paying for a landmark education bill that promises $1.5 billion more in school funding over several years, without a dedicated funding source.
Baker, who will unveil his budget proposal for the next fiscal year on Wednesday, said finding the funding “may be the easy part.”
“The harder part,” he said, “will be implementing the proven strategies in schools and districts throughout Massachusetts that change the game for kids.”
Globe correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report. Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com.