Voters often seek in a new governor qualities lacking in their last — and that’s what they got yesterday.
Incoming Governor Charlie Baker kept it short, straightforward, and low key, focusing mostly on immediate problems in an inaugural address that could have been titled “Let’s Get Back to Basics.”
In his big speeches, Deval Patrick was prone to taking viewers on a magic carpet ride that focused on dreamy distant horizons, but obscured or ignored immediate challenges and choices.
Not Baker. His one big applause-earning initiative was his promise to lead a bipartisan effort to tackle the opiate crisis. The early stages of his speech were obviously meant to contrast his dive-into-the-details determination with Patrick’s loftier approach — and even to portray it as a necessary corrective. The state isn’t living up to its potential, he declared, saying it has ignored tough problems or kicked them down the road. His cabinet and staff, Baker said, “understand that policy pronouncements without follow-through amount to empty promises.”
And in a sally that began with a compliment for former Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s focus on the nuts and bolts, Baker shortly declared: “When thousands of families continue to be confused and let down by the Health Connector, we’re not paying attention to the details.”
Patrick partisans will resent that, though many others will welcome Baker’s promised attention to detail. Either way, though, the new governor’s message was unmistakable: It’s time to roll up our sleeves, dig in, and make things work.
Baker’s speech also served as a reassertion of the Weld-Cellucci doctrine that the state must budget within its existing revenues rather than occasionally increase taxes to meet public needs. Noting that he’s inherited a budget deficit pegged at half a billion, Baker said: “If we’re honest with ourselves, we can’t blame this deficit on a lack of revenue. We have to recognize that this is a spending problem.” He then underscored his determination not to raise taxes or cut local aid.
Now, in the short-term, taking taxes and local aid off the table may help focus attention on reform. But if the state enters a protracted period of tight revenues, there will be understandable pressure to spread the budgetary belt-tightening across all categories of discretionary spending, including aid to cities and towns. And in serious budget crunches, doing all the budget-balancing on the spending side can spell deep, counterproductive cuts in areas like public higher education. Baker’s stance on revenue adds this qualification to his supposed budgetary bipartisanship: I’ll listen to all ideas — except for those I’ve previously ruled out.
That said, Baker’s no-new-revenue formulation helps illuminate one of his bedrock tenets: An imaginative manager can find ways to better people’s lives that don’t simply involve spending more public money. He talked, for example, about improving energy-delivery systems so Massachusetts residents and businesses can benefit from lower national energy prices. He spoke of boosting the state economy by cutting red tape and streamlining regulatory processes. He stressed the need for more transparency in health care to help curb prices.
One area where his directness was particularly noteworthy — and refreshing — was on education. The new governor recounted a Wednesday visit to Lawrence, a formerly failing district that’s shown impressive progress since state intervention brought about a dramatic overhaul of the status quo. “[O]ther schools really do need to step it up for the children and the families that they serve,” Baker said. “Poor performance given the dramatic success other schools have demonstrated can no longer be tolerated.”
He offered equally pointed remarks about charter schools, as issue where the Democratic Party’s determined anti-charter contingent too often indulges in superficial or specious arguments to disguise the real issues at play.
“It’s wrong for any of us to stand on a front porch or in a city neighborhood sympathizing with a mom or a dad when they tell us their child is not getting the education to succeed in life . . . and then oppose lifting the charter school cap or making the kind of changes that are being made in places like Lawrence to ensure that every school is great,” he said.
This wasn’t a transporting speech or one that will be long remembered for its rhetoric.
But it counts as a serious, sober effort that carried a clear message about the kind of governor Baker hopes to be.
Call it a good solid start.