Baker weighs in on vetoes, Keolis, racial divisions, and hydropower

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Gov. Charlie Baker aired his thoughts Sunday on balancing the state budget, racial divisions, police body cams, the performance of the MBTA, and the role of hydropower in the state’s energy mix. Baker was the guest on “On the Record,” the Sunday morning political program hosted by Ed Harding and Janet Wu on WCVB. Here’s a rundown:

— ON THE STATE BUDGET, AND VETO OVERRIDES: Democratic legislative leaders are gearing up to add spending back to the state budget but Baker said he vetoed $256 million because the Legislature’s $39.15 billion spending bill underfunds accounts by about $250 million. The underfunded accounts include public counsel for indigent defendants, emergency assistance to the homeless, and winter road-clearing, Baker said, predicting bills “we think we’re going to have to pay for no matter what between now and the end of the year.” Baker said he “felt bad about” vetoing certain spending. “There’s a lot of very worthwhile stuff that was on that veto list but we have to have a balanced budget,” he said. The governor described a “tremendous amount of scrambling” to deal with a $480 million fiscal 2016 revenue shortfall and said he was “very nervous” about a similar situation occurring in the fiscal year that began on July 1. Defending his veto decisions, he said, “We can’t have another year where we’re just chasing the revenue number all year long. It creates enormous instability for everyone.” Highlighting a major difference of opinion with the governor, House Speaker Robert DeLeo last week suggested the Legislature could override all of Baker’s vetoes and the state budget would still be balanced. House leaders are still determining which veto overrides to initiate.

— ON KEOLIS AND THE MBTA: Baker made it clear that he’s still not happy with the performance of the MBTA, which just raised fares, and said it was “hard to say” whether he would renew a contract with commuter rail service provider Keolis Commuter Services if it were coming up for renewal. “The grade I would give them would be an incomplete. But I certainly think that they and we need to do much better,” Baker said. Keolis is in the early stages of an eight-year contract that calls for the T to pay the company $2.69 billion. Baker administration officials this week advanced a deal that could add $68 million in new payments to the company. Baker said Keolis would be expected “to do more and to be better” under the renegotiated contract, which he said would move things in the “right direction.” But the governor added: “I’ve not been happy with virtually anything associated with the overall performance of the MBTA. It’s become one of the major reform initiatives for our administration. I think whether you are talking about the commuter rail or the transit system or the bus service, there was a lot that wasn’t working there and we have a long way to go to fix it,” The old contract, Baker said, didn’t feature any provisions dealing with “the customer experience,” which he said is now a big part of the focus.

— ON RACIAL DIVISIONS: Asked about racial divisions and tensions in the United States, Baker touted the need for open conversations, and said he had campaigned in communities of color, offered an “urban agenda” of policy initiatives, and hired people from city government and community development corporations to senior posts in his administration. “We wanted to have people who could actually bridge that divide and engage the discussion,” Baker said. He added, “Maybe I’m being a little naïve, I do think people here work this stuff pretty hard. And I think we have made progress on a number of things. Obviously there is always more we can do but we take this one pretty seriously.” Baker also suggested urban problems need to be addressed in education and neighborhood development initiatives that target the “opportunity gap.”

— ON POLICE BODY CAMS: A Boston Police Department police body cam pilot program will provide guidance on the use of the devices, Baker said. The governor said “there’s certainly an opportunity to create transparency” by using body cams, but expressed some concern about the possibility of sacrificing “intimacy” between law enforcement and local communities if everything is recorded. Calling the pursuit of the pilot a “really good thing,” Baker added, “I’m very anxious to see what the results are.” The governor said, “The other issue it’s going to raise is how much of that information should be purely ultimately public information as well.” Baker said that while running for office he rode with the Boston Police gang unit and they took him to a cheerleading practice, a Pop Warner football game and a barbecue. “They said look, lots of what we do most of the time is talk to folks in the community who are just doing the kinds of things that everybody does in every community . . . These guys did not start with the presumption that as police officers their only function was to enforce the law. They absolutely believed that becoming part of the community and building relationships of trust on an ongoing basis with people in the community was important to them.” Baker also said that “maybe we should spend more” than the $13 million allocated for police training.

— ON HYDROPOWER: Baker said most of the hydropower he envisions flowing into Massachusetts under a pending renewable energy bill would come from Canada but mentioned upstate New York repeatedly as a potential source of hydro. Asked about critics who say infrastructure needed to bring hydropower to Massachusetts will drive up consumer costs, Baker said Canada pays 2 to 3 cents a kilowatt hour for hydropower and Massachusetts ratepayers pay between 10 and 15 cents per kilowatt hour for energy, with rates running as high as 50 to 60 cents per kilowatt hour here in the winter. “We will not take anything other than a good deal. And that’s the way this thing was structured in the legislation,” said Baker, referring to proposals calling for competitive renewable energy procurements under long-term contracts. If the state is able to secure reliable hydropower for “at or below what we pay now,” then the governor said “I think we’d be making a mistake not to take it.” A six-member conference committee is under pressure to meld differing House and Senate energy bills into a consensus bill before the July 31 end of formal legislative sessions.

— ON GOVERNORS GETTING TO THE WHITE HOUSE: Baker shook his head disapprovingly as the show’s hosts, Ed Harding and Janet Wu, surfaced questions about voters sending governors to the White House, but then answered correctly that of the 17 governors who became president, Republican Calvin Coolidge was the only one from Massachusetts and that New York had sent the most governors to the White House. During the program’s pop quiz segment, Baker was also able to identify six-term Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, the longest-serving governor in US history, as having just endorsed Republican Donald Trump for president. Texas appeared a blind spot for Baker as he missed a question about the last sitting governor to win the presidency (George W. Bush) and the first current or former GOP governor to pull out of the 2016 race for president (Rick Perry).

— Written by Michael P. Norton

Copyright State House News Services