Recap and analysis of the week in state, and federal, government
from State House News Service
Massachusetts residents got a reminder last week of something that can sometimes get lost in the day-to-day political skirmishes: the state isn’t a half-bad place to live.
U.S. News & World Report, in its first-ever state rankings, declared Massachusetts the best of the united 50.
With his state catapulted over the heap by its top-rated education system and superior access to health care, Gov. Charlie Baker got to leave a conference of his peers in Washington to appear on “CBS This Morning” and crow about all that Massachusetts has to offer — an enviable spot for a Republican governor trying to navigate through his blue state’s politics.
The picture painted by U.S. News stands, in a some respects, as a counterargument to the daily debates on Beacon Hill.
To hear some tell it, Massachusetts is drowning in debt, income inequality and a lack of affordable housing. Tens of thousands of students are being left behind by the public school system, and healthcare and energy costs are crushing families and small businesses.
But in Massachusetts, being ranked number one is unlikely to be enough, just like five Super Bowl rings on Tom Brady’s right hand couldn’t stop the parade-goers last month from chanting: “We want six.”
Now it’s on Baker, the Legislature, mayors and everyone else to keep the top spot.
While it may not be in everyone’s nature to accentuate the positive, no one in Massachusetts is quite on President Trump’s level of “American carnage.” But Trump gave his first not-technically-a-State-of-the-Union address to Congress Feb. 28 and adopted what the pundits deemed a more “presidential” and uplifting tone and demeanor, even if the policy had not changed all that much.
However, the positive reviews for Trump in what seemed like a reset for his presidency quickly gave way to more troubling headlines about contacts his campaign may have had with Russian officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Sessions recused himself from any investigations into the Trump campaign that might be underway, but so far has not caved to pressure from Democrats — including the state’s entire Congressional delegation — to resign over what, at the very least, was incomplete testimony to Congress during his confirmation hearing about a meeting he had with the Russian ambassador during the campaign season when he was a U.S. senator.
The state Senate is hoping its bridge-building with the business community is going more smoothly than Trump’s. After first inviting the Massachusetts Business Roundtable in for a bipartisan caucus, this week’s caucus guest was Associated Industries of Massachusetts.
“I’m hoping that today represents sort of a reset of the relationship between AIM and the Senate,” said AIM’s John Regan during the public portion of the caucus.
As the more liberal of the two branches, Senate leaders have their work cut out for them if they hope to get back in the good graces of the business community and champion causes like paid family and medical leave.
— Matt Murphy
OFF THE TOP
Healey and Trump, together at last
Attorney General Maura Healey was one of the voices calling for Sessions to resign the same week she confronted Texas Rep. Lamar Smith over perceived interference with her investigation into ExxonMobil’s climate research.
Healey called on Smith’s committee to drop its subpoena of documents pertaining to her investigation, while at the same time requesting documents for herself pertaining to any mention of the committee’s investigation into her actions.
All of this the same week Healey saw Trump not in court, but face to face at the White House where she joined fellow attorneys general in a meeting with the president that was disclosed not by her office, but the White House itself. Healey was among more than a dozen AGs who skipped a photo op with Trump after the meeting.
— Matt Murphy
ALSO ON THE AGENDA
- Murray, chamber get in on the business of education
- Local public hearings set ahead of budget season
- McGovern’s been tremendously busy on Twitter
- Video: Gov. Baker on Ware fallen soldier, week’s top stories
- Public higher education feels strain of state budget crunch
Murray aligns chamber with business group to push workforce development
A business group focused on education reform has brought on the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce as an affiliate, heightening the emphasis among Massachusetts employers on workforce development issues in the young legislative session.
According to Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, 72 percent of Massachusetts employers say schools need major or moderate change.
“Employers believe that there is much room for improvement in preparing our youth for success in postsecondary education and the workforce. Deep inequities in education that leave far too many students on the economic sidelines and a widening skills gap that makes it difficult for employers to find qualified candidates to fill open positions, must be addressed,” the alliance concluded in Friday’s announcement.
The alliance says the Worcester chamber is its first “affiliate” but that the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce, Springfield Business Leaders for Education, Newton-Needham Regional Chamber of Commerce, Concord Chamber of Commerce, and TechNet have also joined its “network.”
“The number one concern of our member businesses, regardless of the size or the sector, is workforce,” said Timothy P. Murray, Worcester Regional Chamber president and CEO. “We are actively engaging with schools and our college community on a local level, but it is important to look beyond the region.
“The business community needs to be proactive in engaging with the schools as well as represented at the state level to ensure that students are prepared for college and career.”
Murray, Worcester mayor from 2002 to 2007, is the state’s former lieutenant governor, a Democrat.
The alliance, which has not finalized its legislative priorities, says education “is emerging as a key policy issue this year,” and alleged that efforts are underway “to roll back education reforms that have made Massachusetts number one in the nation in student achievement.”
— Michael P. Norton
Statewide budget hearings scheduled, at Worcester State March 20
Annual state budget hearings begin next week and a full schedule of the hearings was released late last week.
After a Thursday public hearing at the State House, members of the House and Senate Ways and Means panels plan a Wednesday, March 15, hearing at Everett High School focused on economic development, labor and housing matters in Gov. Charlie Baker’s $40.5 billion budget bill.
On Thursday, March 16, lawmakers plan to travel to Endicott College in Beverly for a public hearing on energy, environment and transportation line items and policies in Baker’s budget.
Worcester State University will be the location for a Monday, March 20, public hearing on spending related to public safety agencies, including district attorneys and sheriffs. Sen Michael O. Moore and Rep. Mary S. Keefe are set to chair the 10 a.m. meeting in the North South room.
Health and human services spending will be examined during a Tuesday, March 21, public hearing at the Reggie Lewis Center at Roxbury Community College. Baker’s call for new employer assessments and provider rate caps, aimed at addressing surging Medicaid enrollment, will likely be discussed.
A second hearing on health and human services agency spending, including operations at the Department of Children and Families, is planned for Monday, March 27, at Kuss Middle School in Fall River.
Education and local aid accounts are up for debate Wednesday, March 29, at UMass-Amherst before a final public hearing, open to anyone who wishes to testify, on Friday, March 31, at the State House.
The House Ways and Means Committee usually releases its rewrite of the governor’s budget in mid-April, with floor debate usually the week after public school vacation week.
— Michael P. Norton
A LITTLE BIRDIE …
The political theater of social media, one tweet [or post] at a time.
It seems Jim McGovern is NOT a Trump (or Sessions) fan …
— Jim McGovern (@RepMcGovern) March 2, 2017
BIG: #Sessions claims he spoke w/ Russian amb. at RNC as a senator
But he used campaign money for travel & discussed Trump. He must resign. pic.twitter.com/6BKefSDoTt
— Jim McGovern (@RepMcGovern) March 3, 2017
— Jim McGovern (@RepMcGovern) March 3, 2017
VIDEO OF THE WEEK
Gov. Baker on Ware fallen soldier, Sununu comments, opioids
IN THE NEWS
As state officials grapple with budget demands, public higher ed students brace for higher costs
BOSTON — Despite seven years of economic growth, the Beacon Hill budget climate in 2017 has so far not translated into major increases in funding for public higher education, leaving students and families struggling to pay for college vulnerable to another round of tuition and fee increases this fall.
College students filled the State House last week, pressing for increases in state funds, which supplement tuition and fees and campus revenues to finance the state’s public higher education network comprising the University of Massachusetts, state universities and community colleges.
“We can’t leave it to university presidents and college administrators,” Zac Bears, executive director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, told the students as they prepared to lobby lawmakers March 1. “They’re hamstrung. They either get to choose what programs do we cut or how much do we raise tuition and fees.”
Bears said the advocacy day’s goal was to “get our legislators to give our administrators more tools, so that they’re not forced between making two bad choices every year.”
Public higher education students were hit with tuition and fee hikes last year, including a 5.8 percent tuition increase at UMass.
Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed small increases for the public higher education system in his fiscal 2018 budget, which attempts to rein in costs in the budget-busting MassHealth program that is threatening to consume new state revenues.
UMass President Marty Meehan, in his budget request to the Baker administration, asked for an increase of $30 million, or 5.9 percent, over this year’s funding, for a total state appropriation of $538.6 million. Baker’s budget proposes a $3.5 million increase.
Meehan wrote that if the state is unable to support the $30 million increase and an additional $16.6 million for the state’s share of collective bargaining agreement costs, “the University will be in the unfortunate circumstance of having to raise tuition and implement over $30 million in cuts that would likely impact the core education and teaching mission of all five UMass campuses.”
The cuts could result in extending a hiring freeze, increasing student-to-faculty ratio, changing program offerings and reducing transportation services, he said.
Baker recommended a $2.2 million increase in the $250.5 million allocated for state universities and a $4.2 million increase in the $274 million appropriated for community colleges.
The state Department of Higher Education requested $264.9 million for the state universities and $289.9 million for community colleges, both 5.5 percent increases.
Sen. Michael Moore and Rep. John Scibak, the chairmen of the Joint Committee on Education, said they hoped lawmakers will be able to boost Baker’s numbers.
Moore, a Millbury Democrat, said the state needs to find “a dedicated revenue source” to fund education, pointing toward a proposed surtax on income over $1 million as one potential avenue.
“We’ve got to make sure that students have access to public higher education, not necessarily saying it’s free, but it’s got to be something that they can afford and not be crippling for the rest of their life.” he said.
New revenue to fund education and other programs in next year’s budget will be likely limited after officials have ruled out new taxes. Baker opposes broad-based tax hikes, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo has said the House budget will not contain increases to the sales or income taxes.
A 2018 ballot question would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment setting a 4 percent surtax on annual household incomes over $1 million, intended to generate new funds for education and transportation.
— Katie Lannan [Michael Norton contributed reporting]