'Fix-it' governor likely to face closer scrutiny ahead

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BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker takes pride in his reputation as a "fix-it" governor, but as the Republican wraps up his first year in office, he seems keenly aware that going forward, his administration will be judged not by the problems it inherited but on how solutions are working.

In other words, it's all happening on his watch now.

"I think to some extent whoever is in office at the time anything doesn't go right, you know, you own it," Baker said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "But what I would hope is that we are able to continue to demonstrate consistent improvements over time."

Baker garnered eye-popping performance approval ratings in public opinion polls in 2015. One national survey even ranked him as the most popular governor in America — and this in a state where Democrats overwhelmingly dominate the political establishment.

Early on, Massachusetts residents seemed favorably disposed to Baker's willingness to tackle a budget shortfall — then estimated at $765 million — that he blamed on a "spending problem" in state government, but even more so his response to massive breakdowns in the Boston-area public transit system during a brutal stretch of snow and cold.

After some initial criticism that he did not move swiftly enough against the semi-independent Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the governor set in motion events that produced a management overhaul and hand-picked control board to oversee the agency for at least three years.

But the T, as he acknowledges, is far from back on track. The control board warned in a report this week of painful and unpopular choices ahead, including possible fare increases and service adjustments. Should the aging and deficit-ridden system continue to sputter even as riders pay more, the blame — and anger — could shift squarely to Baker's doorstep.

During the year-end interview, Baker pointed to other vexing problems that his administration has tackled. The state's health connector, which failed disastrously at the outset of the federal Affordable Care Act, has performed almost flawlessly during the most recent open enrollment period, he said.

The number of customers unable to get through to the connector by phone dropped from 14,000 in November 2014 to just 120 last month, and average wait times for callers was about seven seconds compared to four or five minutes a year ago, he said.

"So for those hundreds of thousands of people for whom the last couple of years have been a nightmare, this one so far anyway seems to be not only a mild improvement but a monster improvement," Baker said.

Chronically long waits at Registry of Motor Vehicles offices have all but disappeared, the governor added, and the state's voter-approved medical marijuana program finally launched this year after previous regulatory delays.

Democrats note that the process of repairing the connector began during the administration of former Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, as did reforms to the Department of Children and Families that grew out of high-profile tragedies.

The state's Democratic party also sought to remind voters that Baker's "dire budget prediction" from a year ago turned out to be overstated, as Massachusetts finished the fiscal year with a moderate surplus. Some also argue that Patrick left the state with a strong economy and low unemployment, easing Baker's first-year transition.

Maintaining lofty poll numbers while he enters year two will be more challenging as Baker grapples with issues both known and as-yet unforeseen.

"But we need to own whatever it is that happens and tell people what we're going to do to deal with it and fix it," he said.


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