A Wild 2018 on Beacon Hill …
Can 2019 Approach It?

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2019/01/01/a-wild-2018-on-beacon-hill-can-2019-approach-it/

By Matt Murphy
State House News Service

To put 2018 into context, consider this.

Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly re-elected a Republican governor and a U.S. senator who is gearing up to run for president as a Democrat in 2020, and some political and government reporters didn’t have either story on their ballots for top stories of the year.

It’s been that kind of ride in 2018, a 12-month, roller coaster of emotion that featured major policy achievements, and some big failures, sandwiched between scandal and electoral intrigue from Washington to Beacon Hill.

President Donald Trump and the reactions of local elected officials to his every move continued to drive news cycles, but Massachusetts leaders were also making plenty of news on their own. The Legislature passed clean energy and opioid abuse prevention legislation. The state’s first casino opened in Springfield while another casino planned for Everett is in limbo. National Grid locked out over a thousand gas workers. And Mount Ida College closed and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst swooped in to buy its property, fueling continuing concerns about the future of small liberal arts schools.

The House said goodbye to three of its own with Jim Miceli of Wilmington, Peter Kocot of Northampton and Chris Walsh of Framingham all dying while in office, and former state Senator Brian Joyce of Milton, who was under federal indictment, died unexpectedly at his home in Westport at the age of 56.

None of those stories, however, made the top 10 list. Neither did any of the ballot questions that voters actually decided, including a rejection of nurse staffing ratios and the preservation of the transgender rights laws. The ballot campaigns that got preempted? That’s a different story.

This year’s top story, as voted on by members of the Beacon Hill Press Corps, actually has a familiar feel since it represented the wild continuation of a drama that began in 2017. But without further ado, the following are the top 10 political stories of 2018, as voted on by many of the state political reporters who write and report daily on the people and issues that occupy Beacon Hill:


Where to start? For the second straight year, the Massachusetts Senate earned top honors, perhaps for all the wrong reasons. Last year, Stanley Rosenberg gave up the presidency in early December as his civil-law husband became embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal, quickly jumping to the top of reporters’ lists of compelling stories for 2017. The fallout, however, was more than anyone could have imagined. Rosenberg’s departure touched off a year during which the Senate was constantly in flux while trying to maintain a sense of continuity. State Senator Harriette Chandler, initially tapped by her peers to be placeholder president, eventually had to be given the permanent title, as an internal Ethics Committee investigation boiled under the surface and senators came to the conclusion that no matter what state Senator Michael Rodridgues’s committee found, Rosenberg could not return. That touched off a back-room leadership scramble that resulted in Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) in March claiming the votes to become the next president, and striking a deal with Chandler, in the name of stability, to wait until the end of session in July to make the transition. Meanwhile, the Ethics Committee reached an unfavorable conclusion about Rosenberg’s inability to keep his civil-law husband away from Senate affairs that resulted in the Amherst Democrat resigning from the Senate altogether. The roller-coaster largely came to a stop in August, and the Senate, under Spilka, is looking ahead to a less eventful 2019.


Rosenberg was long gone from the Senate by the time the so-called “grand bargain” was struck, but given his distaste for legislating at the ballot, he was likely pleased with the development. So were legislative leaders who were determined to avoid a messy campaign season and keep voters from having to decide, among other things, whether to slash the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax to 5 percent. And so lawmakers met and bargained with the unions and business groups behind the ballot campaigns to convince them to stand down. Near the point of no return in June, the Legislature struck a deal with the business leaders and the Retailers Associations of Massachusetts to keep three measures off the fall ballot. Under the compromise, the $11 minimum wage in Massachusetts will climb to $15 by Jan. 1, 2023. An $800 million paid family and medical leave program for workers becomes the law of the state, and time-and-half pay on Sundays will be phased out. In exchange for that Sunday premium pay repeal and making permanent an annual summer sales tax holiday weekend, retailers dropped what would have been a costly campaign to lower the sales tax. And Gov. Charlie Baker swallowed a new payroll tax increase to fund the paid leave program and signed the “grand bargain,” choosing to honor the work put into finding a compromise over his opposition to new taxes.


After years of lip-service and deferring to outside consultants, the Legislature buckled down to pass landmark criminal justice reform legislation. The bill, which was signed by Governor Charlie Baker in April, reformed the state’s bail system, repealed some mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses, created new diversion programs, and makes some crimes committed by young offenders eligible for expungement. It didn’t have everything everyone wanted. For instance, many advocates had pushed for the final bill to include medication-assisted treatment for those addicted to opioids in prison. While advocates waited to see what Baker would do, former Newton Mayor Setti Warren, who at the time was running for governor, also said that he would have vetoed the bill if he were governor because it added a new mandatory minimum sentence for fentanyl trafficking. Overall, however, most involved in the long buildup to the new law getting signed were pleased with the outcome, And state Representative Claire Cronin (D-Easton) and state Senator William Brownsberger (D-Belmont), the co-chairmen of the Judiciary who negotiated the final compromise, are both thought to be on the short-lists for Ways and Means chairman in their branches.


On the afternoon of September 13, Governor Charlie Baker was in the South End touring the newly renovated More Than Words bookstore, which also hosts job training for young adults. Midway through his visit, photos began appearing on social media of multiple homes in the Merrimack Valley on fire. Baker cut his visit short and rushed back to the State House. Little did anyone know at that moment that the fires and explosions causes by overpressurized gas mains would dominate the political agenda for the remainder of the year. In total, 131 structures, including five homes, were completely destroyed, one man was killed and at least 21 other people were hospitalized. Baker removed Columbia Gas from the job and put Eversource in charge of service restoration, which took almost a month longer than expected. Some customers didn’t have their heat and cooking gas turned back on until early December. There were state and federal oversight hearings and legislation filed to improve gas safety. And gas safety is now an issue unlikely to go away in the new year.



Governor Charlie Baker was re-elected with over 66 percent of the vote, never really breaking a sweat in his campaign against Democrat Jay Gonzalez despite strong national headwinds blowing in the face of Republicans. Ho-hum. The relative ease of the win and the lack of real competition turned the quadrennial race for governor into something of an afterthought this election year, despite that fact that it really was a remarkable story. A Republican in Massachusetts, and one who won his first term by just 40,000 votes, cruised to victory while the GOP took a pounding in other parts of the United States. There are lots of reasons why Baker was an anomaly, but more important than the post-mortem is answering the question of what the governor is going to do with his political capital, and will a second-term Charlie Baker be any different than the first-term. Baker didn’t put much meat on the bones of the near-term agenda, but more could come into focus when he delivers his second inaugural on Thursday, January 3.



In 2016, voters legalized the adult use of marijuana. Then in 2017, legislators spent much of the year rewriting the law that voters had approved. This year, 2018, was the year marijuana enthusiasts and those curious about the once-illicit plant got their chance to lay some money down on the counter and walk out of a store with a bag of weed. It just took a lot of patience. In November, the first two pot shots opened just before Thanksgiving in Leicester and Northampton. The lines were so long that local town officials had to hold special meetings to consider how to alleviate the traffic. Salem was next, where sales were made by appointment only on opening weekend. Then came shops in Easthampton and Wareham. Cannabis Control Commission Chairman Steve Hoffman says now that the CCC has found its “rhythm,” and as many as eight new stores a month could be opening their doors. The legal pot industry has arrived.



How many eggs can you fit in a basket? Because Beacon Hill Democrats put all of them in the so-called millionaire’s tax. After four years and two key tax votes in the Legislature, voters this fall were finally supposed to decide whether people earning more than $1 million should pay a 4 percent income surtax on those higher earnings. And if the polling held up, the constitutional amendment crafted by the Raise Up Coalition would prevail and lawmakers would have an estimated $1.9 billion in new revenue to invest in transportation infrastructure and education. Then in a 5-2 ruling in June, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court dashed those dreams. The high court overruled Attorney General Maura Healey and found that the question had been unlawfully drafted to mandate how the new revenues would be invested. And lawmakers found themselves back at square one, facing a decision to either start the four-year process of amending the Constitution again, raising another tax to generate new revenue, both, or neither.



Democrats succeeded in this year’s midterm elections in flipping control of the U.S. House. Massachusetts voters did their part, opting to again elect only Democrats to its delegation. But Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley made national news. Pressley, with her “Change Can’t Wait” campaign, did something often frowned upon in political circles:  She challenged an incumbent of her own party, and won. Pressley pulled off the shocking upset of 10-term incumbent Michael Capuano, a former mayor of Somerville, who lost despite a sterling progressive record. In the end, the desire within the electorate for fresh faces and ideas in Washington prevailed. Pressley becomes the first woman of color to join the Massachusetts Congressional delegation in January, and with Lori Trahan of Lowell poised to replace retiring U.S. Representative Niki Tsongas, the nine-member crew now counts three women.


A scandal at the Massachusetts State Police slowly unwound over the course of the year as investigators peeled back the layers of a scheme that involved systematic abuse of overtime. Eight troopers so far have been charged by federal prosecutors for embezzling money from a program funded with federal dollars to improve safety and reduce accidents along the Massachusetts Turnpike. Troopers were essentially putting in for overtime pay for shifts they did not work, and covering their tracks by submitting fake citations that were either never issued to drivers or not issued at the times the trooper claimed. Through it all, Governor Baker has stood behind State Police Superintendent Colonel Kerry Gilpin, who was brought on as the scandal began to unfold, and he and Gilpin partnered to develop reforms that included GPS tracking of State Police cruisers and the absorption of Troop E, which patrolled the Pike, into other units.


There was a tie at the bottom of our list for the final two places, but they both had to do with the messy end of formal sessions in July and had ramifications through the election. First, state Representative Jeffrey Sanchez (D-Jamaica Plain), working on his first budget as House Ways and Means chairman, and Senator Karen Spilka (D-Ashland), who had the Senate presidency on her mind, delivered an annual budget 18 days late. And while it did include a boost in overall funding thanks to the booming economy, it did not include Senate-backed immigration enforcement rules that would come back to hurt Sanchez in his failed re-election campaign. Then just a couple weeks later as House and Senate legislators pushed the July 31 midnight deadline for major legislation to be sent to Governor Baker, all the work the branches did on a health care bill to stabilize community hospital finances and an education bill to reform the funding formula for local schools collapsed without a deal.

PRESS SECRETARY OF THE YEAR: In keeping with this year’s top story, the Press Secretary of the Year honors go to Scott Zoback, who served as the communications director under Senate President Harriette Chandler and as a spokesman under Senate President Karen Spilka during a difficult 12 months on that side of the building. Incidently, Zoback will not be able to rest on his laurels after beating out some other top communicators in the balloting, as he is leaving the State House next month for a new job in the private sector at ThinkArgus.


Happy New Year, all.