Baker calls again for charter expansion, opioid abuse solution

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BOSTON – Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker used his first State of the State speech to appeal for bipartisanship in solving ongoing challenges in agencies such as the MBTA and the Department of Children and Families, while reiterating a call for the expansion of charter schools.

“Giving parents in underperforming districts more opportunity to choose a better school is nothing less than any of us would demand for our own children,” Baker said in his prepared text. “More than 40,000 kids – most from communities of color – are excelling in public charter schools.”

“However, 37,000 more – mostly the neighbors of those kids – remain on a waiting list,” the Republican governor said, speaking to lawmakers and other state officials in the House of Representatives chamber. “I urge you to lift the cap on public charter schools.”

Turning to other challenges, the governor cited progress in improving the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s finances and operational issues. He cited a $90 million investment in equipping the T “to  battle the curveballs thrown by Mother Nature” and and an effort to boost capital spending on the transit system to $1 billion a year.

“Turning around a system with the troubles and problems the T has won’t be easy or quick, and there will be some missteps along the way, but we are determined to do it,” he said. “A million people ride the system every day – to get to work, school, the grocery store and then back home. They need the T to work – and work well.”

Baker focused on the wrenching drug abuse epidemic that cost the state more than 1,000 lives in 2014, calling for “disruptive” methods to deal with the growing problem.

“The statistics are terrifying,” Baker said, referring to the abuse of heroin and synthetic opiates found in prescription pain killers. “Four people are dying a day in Massachusetts.”

“The rise in opioid and heroin addiction deaths has traveled hand in hand with the growth in prescriptions,” the governor said. “Prescribers in Massachusetts – and across this country – are far too casual about the addictive consequences of these medications.”

“Breaking the back of this beast will take time, creativity and a willingness to be disruptive,” Baker said. “We must be thoughtful. We must be bold. Let’s get this done, and let’s not rest until we do.”

Looking toward the end of the month, the governor said he plans to deliver a budget that won’t raise taxes or fees, while increasing support for public transportation as well as local and education aid.

“The people of this state live within their means, and we should too,” Baker said.

He also said he plans to propose changes in the state’s tax credit for filmmakers, to make it more cost effective by restoring its original structure. The money that won’t go to film producers will be directed to creating affordable housing and benefiting businesses that sell products in other states.

In a lighthearted moment, the former health-care executive recalled how “some have lamented how boring we are. I’ll admit: that makes me smile.”

“No fights. No yelling. No partisan scrums.”

He then went on to point out that the recent deal he engineered with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to bring General Electric’s headquarters to Boston relied on cooperation between Republican and Democratic leaders.

“There wasn’t an inch of daylight between the Republican governor and Democrat mayor, and the folks at GE could see we were in this together,” Baker said. He appealed to his audience of lawmakers for more of that sort of effort.

“All of us here get that campaigns are competitions, but governing is about the work,” Baker said. “When Karyn and I talked about a bipartisan approach to governing, we meant it.”

“Citizens care about what we say. But what they really care about is what we do, and what they see in their own daily lives,” the governor said. “That’s the reason the Baker-Polito team is so focused on the blocking and tackling of government. It’s where we can have the most impact on peoples’ everyday lives, and it’s what people care about most.”

The governor reeled off some of the achievements under his administration, such as reducing wait times at Registry of Motor Vehicles offices, getting a handle on the T’s fiscal problems and ensuring proper operation during winter months. He also cited closing more than $1 billion in budget deficits and relieving roadblocks at the state’s health-care insurance connector, a problem that “jeopardized hundreds of millions of dollars of federal reimbursements.”

He cited work that has begun to reform the operations of the child-welfare agency, to give workers there the direction and leadership that has sometimes been lacking.

“The children served by DCF are just like everybody else’s kids. Except they’re among the most vulnerable,” the governor said.

Baker directly appealed to lawmakers to consider parents in failing school districts in making his pitch for expanding charter schools, which was a theme of his 2014 campaign for governor. He focused on the children waiting for a chance to get into a charter school.

“Their parents struggle to understand why they don’t deserve the same education their neighbors’ kids get,” Baker said.

“These are families that can’t afford to move, and they can’t afford to send their kids to private schools,” he said. “This is their chance – and it’s a good one.”

“We are willing to discuss. We are willing hear both sides,” the governor said. “But a state that places such high value on education should not place arbitrary limits on high-quality schools. And it should not sit idly by while so many parents feel the pain of missed opportunity for their children.”