Baker’s noble restoration of state government

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“The Baker-Polito Administration Year in Review – 2016,” released nearly a year after Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker assumed the corner office is, in many respects, a blistering indictment of Deval Patrick’s eight years as governor.

It begins a section entitled “Fixes and Reforms,” which lists as goals and objectives: “fixing a broken transportation system,” “reforming a broken Department of Children and Families,” “fixing the RMV,” “fixing a broken Health Connector,” and “fixing a broken Medical Marijuana dispensary system.” In short, the document lays out the charges of years of progressive malfeasance in Massachusetts.

In a wide ranging telephone interview, Baker sounded calm and confident about the noble work his team is diligently implementing to restore and repair a dysfunctional state government.

Asked if he would characterize one of the themes of his administration as “restoration,” Baker pondered for a moment, and responded, simply: “That is a perfectly fine word” to describe it.

Baker said the biggest disappointment of his first year was not addressing the problems at the MBTA “earlier.” The contrasts between Patrick and Baker, in style and substance, are evident. Patrick embodied the incurable progressive urge: if you can’t fix it, expand it. Instead of simply fixing the “T” he sought its expansion, with a billion-dollar transportation “network.” Patrick was a dreamer. Baker is a reformer.

Baker’s approach is not sleight of hand or sledgehammer, rather, it is realistic assessment. When asked the biggest hurdle the Commonwealth faces, his answer is surprising: “energy.”

Despite the comfort of low gas prices and the false sense of security it brings, the Commonwealth is due to lose 10,000 megawatts of power off the grid in the next four to five years. Residents already pay the second highest energy rates in the country. Unless it is addressed soon, Baker fears brown-outs and blacks-outs are possible. He believes Canadian hydropower is the best alternative and “I hope there is a big debate in 2016” with the legislature about obtaining the approvals to move forward. Securing energy, like good government, is overly complicated today.

With regard to building a better economy, Baker eschews the grandiosity of the previous administration’s billion-dollar grab bags (see Life Sciences Initiative). His programs resemble economic pointillism where smaller, more manageable initiatives come into sharper focus from a distance, where a comprehensive image emerges. He seeks to “simplify” and “modernize” local and state government and reduce its complexity. He is also intent on seeing that western Massachusetts take part in Boston’s booming economy by developing what he calls “skill building.”

A few weeks ago, the governor held a private screening of the shattering HBO documentary “Heroin: Cape Cod, USA.” It is an antiseptic look at a group of young people who have succumb to the grip of opiate addiction and shreds the idyllic image of Patti Page’s “Old Cape Cod.” He told invited guests that while the film takes place in Massachusetts it “could be anyplace in America.” Every day four people die in the Commonwealth of opioid overdose. It would not be surprising if he looks to reforming how prescriptions for opioid pain medications are written, with such medications being drivers of unintended addictions.

Baker may in fact be the rightful heir to another quiet, serene and unassuming leader of the Commonwealth from nearly a century ago, Governor Calvin Coolidge. They share the same sentiments and sensibilities about what government does and how it should do it, its vices and virtues.

Coolidge wrote long ago, but with particular relevance today, “There is no dignity quite so impressive, and no one independence quite so important, as living in your means.”

Given the level of massive liabilities — unfunded pensions, perennial out-of-balance budgets, public debt obligations – that approach $130 billion (or $19,493 per capita), Massachusetts has been living beyond its means for decades. These matters will surely need attention too.

The process of restoration is untidy and, in many respects, the major political battles have yet begun but are looming. One wonders if Baker will proactively flush out unpopular and even painful measures early in a first term or slowly unravel the carnival of carnage as it continues coming his way. Either way is fraught with political risks for a man enjoying 70 percent approval ratings today.

After a long lineage of progressive posturing and grisly governance, however, an exhausted and bloodied Commonwealth should continue to enthusiastically accept Baker’s brand of competence, caution and sensible government.

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and a former Cape Cod Times columnist.