SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 17, 2014

Time to raise our game

Baker tells forum audience what state needs to be great

By John Castelluccio
Staff Writer

---- — SALEM — Swampscott Republican Charlie Baker has worked in state government for years, had success in the private sector and ran for governor in 2010.

But the question he hears most on the campaign trail: Why does he want to run again?

Baker said he wants to make Massachusetts a place where everyone can prosper, not just people like him who were fortunate to grow up in a “great town,” get a “great education,” have parents who were regularly employed and paid the bills, and in turn ensure his children have the same opportunities for success.

“My big worry about the commonwealth is whether or not we’re going to be a great place for everybody to live,” he said, adding he believes too many Massachusetts residents face limited opportunities because of where they live in the state.

Baker spoke yesterday to about 100 business and industry leaders, local politicians and others at Hawthorne Hotel for the first of three forums sponsored by the North Shore Chamber of Commerce and Energi featuring high-profile gubernatorial candidates. Next up is Attorney General Martha Coakley on May 16, followed by Treasurer Steve Grossman on June 11, both of whom are vying for the Democratic ticket.

For about an hour, Baker answered questions from the audience ranging from education, healthcare and taxes to local aid, unfunded pension liabilities and even where he stops for his morning coffee.

The main issues are jobs, schools and communities, he said. The goal is to create an environment that fosters job growth and stability, leads to great schools in every town and instills firm belief in every community for a brighter future.

“The simple truth of the matter is that this is a far less equitable state than it was when I got out of college in 1980,” he said, arguing that data shows Massachusetts is the second most inequitable state behind New York. Baker said the Bay State ranks near the bottom of numerous surveys on cost of living, cost to do business, taxes, and permitting and licensing fees.

“We are wicked smart, and a lot of people will pay up for all that wicked smartness we have, but a lot of people will just simply go someplace else,” he said.

On K-12 education, Baker says there are many great schools and districts in the state, but there are many that “aren’t making the grade.” He said the state needs to focus on excellent schools and educators who are thriving in challenging environments and tap into what makes them successful. The mind-set now, from a budgetary and policy perspective, is to treat everyone the same, when they’re really not, he said.

Baker also said greater effort should be made with vocational and technical schools, many of which are undertaking innovative projects, to connect education to thousands of skilled job opportunities that exist. He noted that some universities are forging their own partnerships with industries to create co-ops and internships across different fields and said the state should pursue similar projects. He added that many vocational schools boast 100 percent graduation rates.

He said he’s not going to raise taxes. Instead, the state should be more creative on generating revenues and spending money.

“We can’t believe that we can tax and spend our way to success,” he said.

Along those lines, local aid continually dwindles, posing more hurdles for cities and towns to meet financial obligations. “If state revenues grows by 5 percent, local aid should grow by 5 percent,” he said.

On health care, Baker argues the Affordable Care Act is nothing like the state health care reform enacted several years ago, and said Massachusetts should be free to continue its own program instead of overlaying it with “disruptive” and “destructive” federal legislation. He’s spoken to many whose insurance costs have risen by 25 to 40 percent for the same coverage — his own insurance rose by 30 percent, he said. Baker supports efforts to seek federal waivers and said the real issue is the determination to keep asking until the answer from the federal government changes.

Baker supports raising the minimum wage, but said tax credits on payroll taxes, for example, need to be given to small-business owners to help absorb the hit. He also called for more tax incentives for low-wage workers.

Responding to a question on accountability, Baker said that when he was on Beacon Hill under two Republican administrations, Democrats controlled the Legislature, but each side held the other accountable. Those checks and balances don’t exist with Democrats in total control, he said.

Baker criticized a recent House vote to rule out debate on education, welfare reform or local aid during budget talks.

“No offense meant to John,” Baker said, acknowledging Salem Rep. John Keenan in the audience. “That’s 30 percent of the state budget, and they just took it right off the table.”

He said Democrats killed debate on those issues perhaps to avoid taking votes that constituents might hold them accountable for. He said they treated the automatic gas tax hikes the same way, although a ballot question to repeal the measure will be before voters this fall.

“I think state government should raise its game. I think state government should be as thrifty and as clever and as hardworking as the people it represents,” Baker said. “You’re perfectly right to expect more.”

Among the crowd yesterday were Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, former Salem Rep. Michael Harrington, who owns the hotel, and Republican congressional candidate Richard Tisei, Baker’s running mate in 2010. “Richard’s actually interested in some other job, I can’t remember what it is,” Baker joked.

You can reach John Castelluccio at 978-338-2527, jcastelluccio@salemnews.com or via Twitter at @SNjcastelluccio.