Weekly Roundup – Priorities Not Always Shared

Recap and analysis of the past week in Massachusetts state government

If Gov. Charlie Baker is living by a mantra for his last year in office, it could be this: Always be closing.

Baker said this week that he’s going to do whatever he can over the next 10 months to avoid becoming a “lame duck” even if the odds are admittedly “pretty slim” that he has any sort of future in elected politics.

“I’m not dead yet,” Baker told GBH’s Jim Braude and Margery Eagan, quoting from Monty Python.

Weekly Roundup - Priorities Not Always Shared
Senate President Karen Spilka, House Speaker Ron Mariano, and Gov. Charlie Baker await questions from the press after their private huddle Monday afternoon in the Senate Reading Room. [Sam Doran/SHNS]

Increasingly, that has meant Baker using Twitter to try to engage the public in his policy agenda. Baker tweeted ahead of the Super Bowl about his wish to see sports betting legalized and has more recently been sharing videos of victims of domestic assault and other violent crimes telling their stories about how his bill to expand the ability of judges and police to detain violent criminals would help.

“We are failing victims here in the commonwealth, over and over and over again, and we’ve been doing it for years,” Baker said during a mid-week visit to the Springfield YWCA to hear more survivor stories.

Baker also reacted to the Department of Revenue’s monthly report on state tax collections showing a sizable surplus taking shape for the year by urging passage of his tax cuts. “Tax revenues keep exceeding expectations and we should give some of that back to taxpayers,” he said.

The governor, of course, isn’t the only one with an agenda.

House Speaker Ron Mariano brought forward his priority bill to improve competition for offshore wind development and spark economic and job growth in a sector that after all these years is still getting off the ground. The legislation would soften the cap that requires each wind contract to offer cheaper energy than the last, and take steps to make it easier for developers to connect their renewable energy sources to the grid.

The bill, however, is probably just the first salvo in a process that could end up pushing against the Legislature’s end-of-July deadline for major business. Senate President Karen Spilka has talked about a more comprehensive energy bill this session, and Baker this week raised concerns about the House-backed fee on natural gas to finance offshore wind innovation.

Spilka has her own interests as well, so stop asking her about sports betting. (That’s what she said.)

“Curious as to why reporters and why people don’t ask, ‘What about mental health reform?’ Where’s that? The Senate has done that twice, and that is desperately needed by all residents of Massachusetts and that’s not a conflict or controversial,” Spilka said.

That was Spilka’s way of throwing it back at the House after Mariano went on the radio and expressed his frustration with the “stubborn reluctance” of his Senate counterpart to get on with the gambling bill. State House insiders generally insist that Spilka and Mariano have a fairly good working relationship. There’s certainly more direct communication than with Mariano’s predecessor Robert DeLeo, sources say.

But everyone can get a little frustrated now and again.

Spilka’s comments came after the Senate passed two bills to increase access to disposable menstrual products in prisons, homeless shelters, and public schools, and to expand equitable access to maternal postpartum care. The Senate is also prepared to debate soldiers’ home oversight next Thursday.

While lawmakers continue to roll the ball downhill toward the end of the heaviest part of the workload for the two-year session in July, the races that will decide who picks that ball up in 2023 became clearer this week, particularly on the Republican side.

GOP gubernatorial candidate Chris Doughty announced that he would be teaming up with former Rep. Kate Campanale, of Spencer, on what they hope to be a winning ticket in November. Campanale is the first Republican to announce for lieutenant governor this cycle in what has been a more popular contest on the Democratic side, where there are five vying to be number two.

In addition to Campanale, the Republican Party saw conservative Bourne attorney Jay McMahon, who will make a second run for attorney general, and 2018 secretary of state nominee Anthony Amore, who will run for auditor, join the slate.

“I think 2022 is 2010 on steroids,” MassGOP Chairman Jim Lyons said, referring to the successful Tea Party wave a dozen years ago that saw the party make strong gains on Beacon Hill. Time will tell if he’s right, but first the GOP needs candidates and they got them this week. Lyons expects the last unoccupied statewide slot on the Republican ballot – a candidate for treasurer – to be filled before the May signature filing deadline.

A continent away, Russia’s war against Ukraine raged as lawmakers here looked for ways to respond to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military aggression. Or more precisely, looked to others to respond for them.

House Minority Leader Brad Jones spearheaded a letter signed by 58 House and Senate Democrats and Republicans calling on Treasurer Deb Goldberg to review the state’s $104 billion pension fund for investments in Russia and immediately divest.

Goldberg responded in turn by telling legislators that while she would support divestment, it would require an act of the Legislature directing the Pension Reserve Investment Management Board to do so.

PRIM Executive Director Michael Trotsky said the pension fund had no investment impacted by U.S. sanctions on Russia, but did have about $140 million in holdings with “exposure” to Russia. Spilka said told the News Service she would continue to talk with senators, Goldberg, Baker and the House about what might be done with regard to Russia, but she was also worried about taking any action that would have “unintended consequences” for small, Russian-owned businesses who are not to blame for Putin’s actions.

“I don’t think we can have a knee-jerk reaction,” she said.

Meanwhile, before he took off Friday for a weeklong vacation in Utah Baker signed an executive order directing all executive branch agencies to review all state contracts and terminate any agreement with Russian state-owned companies.

Baker’s trip to Utah brought back an immediate flood of memories from the (last?) time the governor and his family went to Utah where they own property in Park City. It was March of 2020, and Baker left assuring the public he would be taking part in daily briefings with his team and the feds on a novel virus beginning to spread in Massachusetts and elsewhere around the country.

That vacation lasted only a couple of days before the governor got on a flight back home to Boston to declare a state of emergency in Massachusetts as the COVID-19 pandemic had begun.

Fast forward to today and basically all COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted. Boston’s public indoor mask mandate lifts on Saturday and the state followed the Centers for Disease Control this week in allowing students to lose their masks on school buses.

Public transportation and health care settings remain among the few places where masks are still required, a list that also includes the State House.

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