Local Economy Roaring — Will It Continue?; Roundup of Week

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2018/01/06/local-economy-roaring-will-it-continue-roundup-of-week/

By Matt Murphy

BOSTON — The re-election year for Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker got started much the way his inaugural year did – Mother Nature testing the fortitude of Bay Staters and putting the MBTA under a microscope.

The “bomb cyclone” that whipped and swirled snow up and down the coast and blanketed most of the state caused massive flooding, power outages and general headaches before moving on to Canada. But the storm was actually a respite from the biting cold that moved back into the region after the last flakes fell.

The MBTA’s aging infrastructure, despite the Baker administration’s investments since the Snowmaggedon of 2015, showed signs of buckling in the chill, but by most accounts, including one of Baker’s 2018 rival’s, the system performed, if not admirably, then at least adequately in Thursday’s snow.

“Things that had plagued the T in earlier winters were not happening today,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said.

But the politics of snow and trains are not going away. Governor Baker may well be judged in November by whether people are able to consistently reach their destinations on the MBTA in January and February. The winter is still young and this storm was more like a pop quiz than a final exam.

“There’s not a lot of snow yet, and hardly anyone is riding the T today, so you’d expect that it would go smoothly at this point,” said Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Gonzalez.

Gonzalez was one of those few riding the rails and buses Thursday as part of a five-day “challenge” to commute on public transit and experience what many Greater Bostonians go through on a daily basis. Democrat Setti Warren will do the same soon.

The snow inches piled up about as fast as tax receipts in the state vault last month.

December’s $3 billion tax haul left state government flush with disposable income six months into the fiscal year after collections beat budgeted benchmarks for the first half of the year by $728 million and exceeded last year’s half-year total by 8.1 percent.

The cushion was enough to convince Governor Baker this week to release his questionable hold on legislative earmarks, which lawmakers cheered as the spigot was turned back on for local programs, including some homeless shelters stretched thin by the winter freeze.

But the welcome fiscal news also came with a caveat.

Revenue department officials said collections were “heavily back loaded” to the final few collection days of the month, and may, in part, have to do with a shift in the timing of estimated payments before the New Year and the effective date of tax rules under the new federal tax law.

It is also believed that the strong performance had something to do with end-of-year bonuses, which companies may have been more comfortable doling out as the corporate tax rate is due to fall.

If taxpayers accelerated payments to take advantage of expiring deductions and other tax code benefits, the December windfall, officials said, may get taken out of receipts expected in January or in later months in the year, serving to level off the rate of the growth.

Another benefit from the Republican tax bill, which was ridiculed by political leaders around the state, may be an electricity rate discount.

Eversource, recently approved by state regulators to implement significant rate increases, was one of the companies feeling generous, and announced that because of the corporate tax cut they would actually be cutting rates in eastern Massachusetts and reducing the hike in western Massachusetts.

Even Attorney General Maura Healey, who had been fighting with the DPU to reject the Eversource rate hikes, had to concede, “Sometimes, consumers win.”

Marijuana consumers, however, aren’t feeling like they won this week after Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era policy memo instructing federal prosecutors to take a hands-off approach toward marijuana bought, sold, used and grown in states that had decided to legalize certain uses of the substance.

The tolerance of regulated marijuana, despite still being a federally controlled substance, has allowed the cannabis industry to flourish in places like Colorado. Voters in other states, California, Maine and Massachusetts included, saw green lights to legalize the product and lawmakers have seen dollar signs flashing before their eyes.

Sessions’ decision injected a level of uncertainty as Massachusetts regulators work to fully implement a 2016 ballot law by next summer and have retail pot shops up and running.

The Cannabis Control Commission said it’s full steam ahead with its development of regulations, and new U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling vaguely singled out “bulk cultivation and trafficking cases, and those who use the federal banking system illegally” as areas of priority for his office.

What that means for state-sanctioned marijuana businesses that engage in bulk cultivation and banking remains to be seen, and Lelling said he will meet with justice department officials and state and local law enforcement soon to discuss priorities.

Speaking of priorities, Acting Senate President Harriette Chandler has a few.

The Worcester Democrat made clear Wednesday as the Legislature kicked off the second year of its two-year session that for however long she’s in the post she has a direction she hopes to lead the Senate.

“Over the coming months, we aim to continue to make progress on priorities large and small,” Chandler said in her 2018 opening remarks. “We will fight for the future of the Massachusetts family. This means continuing our shared legislative work on paid sick leave, on the minimum wage, on affordable housing, and on completing health care reform and criminal justice reform.”

In some ways, Chandler’s agenda could probably be seen as a continuation of Senator Stanley Rosenberg’s agenda, who opens the New Year in a small basement office far different from the opulence of the president’s suite.

In particular, raising paid family and medical leave and the minimum wage as priorities stirs questions about whether the Legislature will try to address these topics before they move to the ballot in November.

Even Democrats who support both may be wondering whether it best to have those votes on their record, or use the issues to drive turnout in the fall.

Some majority party lawmakers may have nothing to worry about though.

Governor Baker helped welcome newly elected Senator Dean Tran to the Senate and the now seven-member GOP caucus this week, but conceded that the Republican bench from which Tran, a former Fitchburg city councilor, emerged is not as deep in all corners of the state.

The Republican Party has not fielded a candidate for the open Senate seat on the North Shore, which includes Baker’s hometown of Swampscott, and Baker said that was a reflection of the political reality on the ground.

“Look, there’s some districts in Massachusetts where Republicans have a shot and there’s some districts where they don’t,” Baker said.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Record tide swamps coast.

SONG OF THE WEEK: With every bomb cyclone comes a barometric pressure drop