Charlie Baker has never sold himself as a "big vision" governor and his nose-to-the-grindstone approach served him well in a harmonious first year. Events, however, may push him from his comfort zone in 2016.
The Republican cited his administration's accomplishments in 2015 in Thursday's State of the Commonwealth address and praised the heavily Democratic House and Senate for working with him. Governor Baker has enjoyed perhaps the longest honeymoon of any newly elected governor in Massachusetts history and the polls attest to his popularity with residents.
Outside analysts, however, are projecting a budget shortfall as large as $1 billion for the fiscal year beginning in July, and if true that would disrupt the harmonious atmosphere on Beacon Hill. Deficit figures often depend on who it is doing the books, as was seen when the deficit essentially expanded the day Democratic Governor Deval Patrick departed the Statehouse last year in favor of his successor. And a number of factors could affect those deficit projections in the months ahead.
If those projections are accurate, or close to being accurate, however, the governor may find it impossible to fund his modest program increases while maintaining his pledge not to raise taxes or fees. Liberal state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg will surely chafe under any major proposed budget cuts by the governor in the absence of some tax hikes. Massachusetts may once have been "Taxachusetts," but by a variety of measurements that has not been the case for some time.
Among his modest proposals offered Thursday, the governor called for an additional $75 million for vocational schools, which emphasizes Pittsfield's wisdom in approving a vocational-oriented new Taconic High School. He repeated his call for lifting caps on charter schools, and the Legislature would be wise to craft a law doing so incrementally while assuring that funding for charters, which answer to the state, don't result in harm to public schools funded by local districts.
The governor seeks a cap on film tax credits after failing to persuade the Legislature to end them. The credits aren't paying projected dividends to the state, and while their advocates have powerful supporters among legislative leadership, they are too costly and must be tightened. Mr. Baker, who has been passionate about addressing opioid abuse, lobbied again for his measures, which must be reconciled as soon as possible with similar efforts in the House and Senate.
Speaking in the House chamber, Governor Baker thanked Democrats "for putting partisanship aside," and indeed Beacon Hill has offered a refreshing contrast to the partisan paralysis on display in Washington, D.C. The rapport on Beacon Hill is sure to be tested in 2016, but it doesn't have to end and won't, as long as all parties remain determined to work together while minimizing gamesmanship.