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OP-ED: Take the Money and Run

Jan 30, 2017 12:29PM ● By State House News

Gov. Baker's State of the State Speech. (State House News Service photo)

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON -- You get a raise, and you get a raise and you get a raise.

These may not have been the exact words used by House and Senate Democratic leaders when they pitched their caucus on a controversial $18 million package of pay hikes for lawmakers, constitutional officers and judges, but it might have been just as effective as whatever was said.

The House on Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday passed the big pay raise package as their first major order of business this session with veto-proof majorities. Republicans unanimously opposed the bill, blasting the scale of the raise and the process used to ram it through, but only 12 Democrats joined the cause.

So when Gov. Charlie Baker finally spoke up on Thursday night against the bill and vetoed it Friday morning, the confrontation between Baker and Beacon Hill Democrats felt more like political theater than a full-on escalation of hostilities.

The governor didn't do much to change that, prefacing his comments on the veto much the way he began and ended his State of the Commonwealth earlier in the week - with praise for the Legislature as a partner in bipartisan compromise that he hopes will continue.

It was as if Baker meant to say, "I'm sorry, guys. I have to do this. Please understand."
Locally, Rep. Jim Miceli, D-Wilmington, and Sen. Barbara L'Italien voted in favor of the package. Reps. Jim Lyons and Colleen Garry, D-Dracut, voted against it.

Any other week, and the news cycle might have belonged to Baker. The governor Tuesday night delivered a well-received address before the Legislature and a day later filed the first budget proposal in state history to top $40 billion in spending - $40.5 billion to be more precise.

Baker's address ran through scores of accomplishments, from big to small, over the first two years of his administration.

Though he once again put his foot down against new broad-based taxes, the speech was light on policy initiatives - a $4,000 tax credit for businesses hiring veterans - and heavy on paying homage to the power of cooperation and the contrast between the politics of Washington and those at home.

"Wedge issues may be great for making headlines, but they do not move this Commonwealth forward. Success is measured by what we accomplish together," Baker said, an ironic comment given his high-profile veto of the pay raise bill just days later.

But with President Donald Trump settling into the White House and delivering a steady stream of headlines and lawmakers maneuvering with haste to deliver themselves hefty pay raises, attention spans were stretched thin.

Secretary of State William Galvin told Trump to "put up or shut up" when it came to the president's unsubstantiated claims about widespread voting fraud, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh essentially said he would harbor immigrants in a fortified City Hall against federal deportation forces if it came to that after Trump signed an order targeting so-called sanctuary cities that have a more accepting posture towards undocumented immigrants.

Baker also outlined how he planned to spend $40.5 billion in fiscal year 2018, a 4.3 percent increase in gross spending over the current year that will serve as the blueprint for the House and Senate to craft their budgets this spring.

As expected, Baker's budget was laden with plans to address soaring MassHealth costs due to Affordable Care Act-driven enrollment, including provider price caps and the previously disclosed $2,000 per employee assessment on companies that don't offer qualifying insurance.

Also new was a plan to begin to collect sales tax from online retailers who do not have a physical location in Massachusetts but do more than $500,000 in sales in the Bay State annually.

But little could compete with the pay raise drama unfolding in the Legislature.

The argument for pay raises was made principally by House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and their respective budget chiefs, and went something like this: Base pay for lawmakers at $62,547 is below the household median in Massachusetts and stipends for leadership and committee chairman have not been adjusted, in many cases, since 1982.

The bad optics of voting to increase one's own pay, however, could not be avoided, particularly at a time when the governor has had to pare back spending on services for residents of Massachusetts due to slow growth in tax revenues.

"I just thought it was too much considering the situation many of the people in the commonwealth are going through," Spencer Democrat Sen. Anne Gobi told the News Service after voting no.

Gobi also said she will decline the pay increase if it becomes law: "If you vote no, you shouldn't take the dough," she said.

Newton Mayor Setti Warren, a Democrat eyeing the 2018 governor's race, made himself few friends among his Democratic compatriots in the Legislature.

Warren started by calling on Baker to veto the "poorly rushed-through pay raise plan," and when the governor did just that Warren followed up by urging fellow Democrats to switch their votes and sustain Baker's veto. It was more aggressive stance than the governor himself had taken.

While that may be unlikely to happen, one veteran political operative said the pay raise imbroglio may have turned the tables on the electoral landscape in 2018, assuming voters' memories are that long.

Doug Rubin, former chief of staff and campaign manager for Gov. Deval Patrick, started the week by suggesting he thought Baker would lose a re-election bid in 2018 if he signed the pay raise bill.

After Baker's veto, Rubin had more to say on Twitter: "The political dynamics in MA heading into 2018 greatly favored D's...until the way Leg just handled pay raise gave R's big opening."

STORY OF THE WEEK: When you control your own pay, who decides what you're worth.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "It just makes me feel good that -- I'm going to say something really crazy but -- there's no Democrat or Republican," Rep. Patricia Haddad said after hearing Baker's "State of the Commonweath" address and before every Republican, including Baker, opposed the Democrats' first initiative of the new year - pay raises.
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