Q&A: Gov. Baker reflects on 1st year, road ahead
BOSTON — It was an eventful year for Gov. Charlie Baker, who was greeted shortly after taking office by record winter snowfall that paralyzed the region's public transportation system. The Republican also grappled with a budget deficit, a deadly opioid addiction crisis and other pressing issues as his administration worked to gain a foothold on Democratic-dominated Beacon Hill.
The Associated Press recently sat down with Baker to discuss his first year and the challenges ahead.
AP: You said when you took office last January that state government had a "spending problem." Is that still the case and are further budget cuts likely?
Baker: "I think the increase in state spending in the fiscal year that we came in I think was about 8 to 8 1/2 percent. Even when after we worked with the Legislature to kind of pare down the deficit I think it was still about a 6 1/2 percent year-over-year increase. To me, that's a spending problem, because that's not sustainable. Even in a good economy you're not going to be able to live with numbers like that.
"I fully expect that this is going to be another tough budget year because we're still working our way through some of that stuff."
AP: The MBTA was obviously a big priority for your administration this year. But there remains a perception that while we've done a good job figuring out what's broken at the T, we haven't quite figured out yet how to fix it. Is that a fair perception?
Baker: "You can't turn around on a dime a $2 billion organization that provides service every day to a million people and employs 9,000 people. One of the things that I am proudest of is that the Legislature was gracious enough to commit to the idea of creating a fiscal and management control board that would meet every week and make very public the thought process and the analysis that they are up to in respect to capital budgets, operating budgets ... the whole nine yards. Believe me, I would much rather have that then what we had previously, which was no information and then — boom! — the thing fell apart last winter."
AP: The Legislature is likely to take up your bill to address the opioid addiction epidemic soon after it comes back from holiday recess. Is this a crisis that could get worse before it gets better?
Baker: "When we took office, four people a day were dying in Massachusetts. Four people are still dying a day in Massachusetts. I've never seen anything with so much negative momentum and breaking it is going to require doing some controversial things."
AP: What are some of the things you expect to touch on in your State of the State address next month?
Baker: "Because it's a continuation of the (legislative) session, I'm more likely to talk about the opioid stuff (and) action on an energy proposal which I'm hoping will include the (hydroelectric power) recommendation that we made, but I fully expect we will deal with natural gas and wind and solar as well.
"I'm certainly going to continue to talk about charter schools and lifting the cap and we'll have some initiatives around economic development as well."
AP: Given that public opinion polls show apparent support for legalizing recreational marijuana, would you give any thought to working with lawmakers to establish a regulatory framework for legal marijuana before it goes on the ballot next November?
Baker: "I think marijuana, the more I learn about it, the more I learn about its impact on teenagers, the more I learn about its connection to heroin, the more I learn about its connection to addiction generally, the less I like legalizing it. I'm perfectly comfortable with the medical marijuana opportunity if it's properly understood and administered by docs and patients. But I am unalterably opposed to legalizing it and I do not want to wave the white flag at all on this one. "
AP: I'm guessing you're not among those disappointed by how warm it's been so far this month?
Baker: "My great fear in this is that when we took office, it looked a lot like it does now. And then the end of January rolled around and we had 30 days of minus-32 degree temperatures in a row ... and 25 days of snow. It was incredible."