August 20, 2017

On Beacon Hill: Free, but not welcome, speech

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Baker selfie

State House News Service/Sam Doran

Gov. Charlie Baker takes a selfie with Pete Frates after signing the “Ice Bucket Challenge Week” law.

 


Recap and analysis of the week in local, state and federal government from State House News Service and Sun research.

It would be virtually impossible to so quickly forget the racial violence that erupted in Charlottesville last weekend, but political leaders at all levels of government this week were preoccupied with making sure they would not be condemned to a repeat of it.

Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, in particular, were joined at the hip for much of the week as they united in press conferences, op/eds and safety meetings to condemn white nationalists and neo-Nazis and make it clear how they felt about a “Free Speech” rally planned for yesterday by conservative groups for Boston Common.

Baker and the Legislature also partnered Thursday to pass a resolution and sign a  proclamation denouncing white supremacy that they planned to send to the White House, the Virginia governor and the mayor of Charlottesville.

Coming on the heels of the Charlottesville protests, organizers of the Boston rally said they don’t support white nationalism, but a controversial list of speakers and the potential to draw unsavory elements had police and public officials on edge heading into yesterday.

The fears were not realized as counter-protestors vastly outnumbered those attending the rally. Boston Police reported 33 arrests, according to reports.

“99.9 percent of the people here were here for the right reason, and that is to fight bigotry and hate,” Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said.

The First Amendment being what it is, the city issued a permit for the event that drew thousands of counter-protesters. Officials hoped for the best while planning for the worst.

Charlie Baker

Sam Doran / State House News Service

Gov. Charlie Baker said that “there is no place here for that type of hatred — period — that we saw in Virginia.”

“As governor of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, I want to be clear that there is no place here for that type of hatred — period — that we saw in Virginia,” Baker said in one of several statements he made over the course of the week.

The governor’s rhetoric seemed to escalate in intensity as the days wore on and a furor grew over President Trump’s response to the violence. Eyes in Massachusetts turned to him for moral leadership, or at least an indication of where he fell on the spectrum.

Trump, of course, condemned the violence, but with great emphasis took the position that “both sides” were to blame for the confrontation that led to the death of Heather Heyer in Virginia.

In comments made during a combative press conference criticized for giving comfort to racism, Trump chose to also blame the “alt-left” that showed up to protest the gathering of white supremacists who marched, ostensibly, in protest of the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Baker’s condemnation of Trump’s response went from deep disappointment to something more, and earned him a shout out from the head of the Democratic Governor’s Association — Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy — who challenged the GOP in his own state to follow Baker’s lead.

“His offensive rhetoric and failure to condemn white supremacy in Charlottesville highlights a failure of the Trump administration to properly address issues that matter to people of color and promote unity and tolerance across our nation,” Baker would say.

The challenge of confronting this country’s racial history is not relegated to places like Charlottesville or communities in the South, either.

While grounds of public parks like those at the State House may be dotted with statues of J.F.K. and Horace Mann instead of General Lee, the city of Boston has its own ugly history of racism to contend with and that also came to the fore this week.

Red Sox owner John Henry said the team was ready to make a push to rename Yawkey Way, and House Majority Whip Byron Rushing has filed legislation to take the Yawkey name off the commuter rail station in the Fens.

Tom Yawkey, of course, was the longtime owner of the Boston Red Sox. He was a philanthropist and is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was also, according to many reports, racist toward black ballplayers and a major reason why the hometown nine were the last team in Major League League Baseball to integrate in 1959.

Walsh made some vaguely supportive comments of Henry’s call for renaming the street that runs alongside Fenway Park, but on Friday he brushed aside questions on the topic suggesting it should be left for another day to discuss.

–Matt Murphy

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • McGovern on Bannon, Healey on offshore drilling
  • Video: Bipartisan support for denouncing white nationalists
  • Deadline looms for low license plate lottery
  • Plainridge has huge month
  • State touts new crime-fighting, homeland security division
  • New MBTA head hired
  • Moving ahead on student assessments despite funding shortfall

A LITTLE BIRDIE …

McGovern on the ouster of Steve Bannon

Healey opposes plan to allow oil, gas drilling off Mass. coast

VIDEO OF THE WEEK

Baker, Rosenberg, DeLeo condemn white nationalist groups

LOOKING AHEAD

Low number license plate deadline

Massachusetts drivers who want a low number license plate — a status symbol to some — could have better odds this year than most.

The Registry of Motor Vehicles recently said fewer applications have come in than usual.

Drivers can submit an application to enter the lottery until Friday, but the RMV says it has received fewer applications than it was expecting, meaning this year’s lottery could have “especially good odds for applicants.” There are 162 license plate numbers that are part of the lottery this year, including 4455, 8888, 33E, 8J, M88, and X1. Last year, the RMV received about 8,600 applications for 183 plates, an increase of 2,600 applications from the prior year.

To enter the lottery, a driver can submit an application by mail, fill one out at an RMV location or apply online. Applications must be received online or postmarked by Aug. 25 for the applicant to be eligible. There is no fee to enter, but winners are responsible for the $100 two-year registration fee, according to MassDOT.

–Colin A. Young

NOTED

Plainridge posts biggest $$$ month since its July 2015 opener

Bettors wagered more than ever before at the state’s lone slots parlor in July — approaching $200 million — helping Plainridge Park Casino post its second strongest month yet.

The Plainville casino, the only gambling facility to open under the state’s six-year-old expanded gaming law, generated $15.5 million in gross gaming revenue in July from a record $194.6 million in wagers, according to the company’s revenue report.

The slots parlor, owned by Penn National Gaming, reported a payout percentage of 92.07 percent. Gross revenues were higher at Plainridge only during the first full month the facility was open, July 2015.

The state is entitled to nearly $6.2 million of Plainridge’s July revenue in the form of state taxes intended for local aid, and another nearly $1.4 million for the Race Horse Development Fund. That works out to $7,566,627, according to the Gaming Commission.

–Colin A. Young

IN THE NEWS

State touts new crime-fighting, homeland security division

The 151-year-old State Police has a “new brain” with the recent creation of the Division of Homeland Security and Preparedness, the state’s public safety chief said last week.

Speaking at the Massachusetts State Police headquarters in Framingham, Public Safety and Security Secretary Dan Bennett said the division would give the state’s main law enforcement branch new capabilities for fighting crime and terrorism.

“We are building a 24-hour statewide Watch Center within general headquarters here in Framingham that will monitor developing incidents anywhere in the state, nation and world which might impact our public safety and security,” said State Police Superintendent Col. Richard McKeon.

The new division oversees the Fusion Center, which collaborates with federal and local law enforcement officials to investigate crime and terrorism. It also includes the Preparedness and Planning Section tasked with coordinating law enforcement for the Boston Marathon and the July 4 fireworks as well as responses to natural disasters.

State Police efforts in the air, water and on the web are run out of the division, which McKeon said will include the department’s cybercrime and digital evidence units, as well as the air wing, marine unit and behavioral observation units. The division also houses an analytical unit, units that focus on narcotics trafficking and human trafficking, troopers assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and the Critical Infrastructure Unit, which reviews security plans, according to a State Police spokesman.

–Andy Metzger

State turns to Texas exec Ramírez to fix MBTA

Luis Ramirez

State House News Service/Sam Doran

Incoming MBTA General Manager Luis Ramírez

Luis Ramírez, who handled a $3.5 billion line of business for General Electric and runs his own turnaround consulting firm based in Texas, will take the reins as the new general manager and CEO of the MBTA, charged with bringing “transformative and lasting change” to the transit agency.

Under the three-year contract, Ramírez will be paid $320,000 per year with 1.5 percent annual raises, and he may also receive performance-based bonuses — a relatively novel contract feature for MBTA chiefs. Ramírez starts Sept. 12.

If Ramírez achieves “clearly defined milestones” that Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said would be established with the Fiscal and Management Control Board, he can receive up to $32,000 in performance bonus his first year, with the size of the bonus increasing to 20 percent of his annual base salary in year three.

“My feeling is that we have a lot of room for improvement,” Ramírez said. He said, “There’s a lot of capability here.”

The general manager of the MBTA is a high profile position serving a customer base conditioned to expect delays and crowding and not shy about expressing their complaints about the service’s shortcomings. The agency is also embroiled in controversy and debate over efforts to privatize some of its services.

–Andy Metzger

State moving ahead on student assessments despite funding shortfall

This year’s state budget underfunds the account for student assessments by about $4 million, according to education officials who expressed optimism that additional money would be appropriated.

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education staff outlined this year’s budget picture at a board meeting last week, highlighting the assessment funding as one challenge in an overall tight year financially.

The state is in the midst of overhauling its MCAS standardized assessment, developing a “next-generation” test that draws from both the existing exams and from PARCC, the test developed by a consortium of states to align with the Common Core curriculum. In August 2016, education officials signed a five-year, $150.8 million contract with the New Hampshire vendor Measured Progress to develop and administer the test.

Bill Bell, the senior associate commissioner for administration and finance, told the board that the final fiscal 2018 budget, which Gov. Charlie Baker signed in July, “did not fund our state assessment account at the level the governor had requested and the level we need to continue the program this fiscal year.” He said the department is “working to achieve this additional funding.”

“We don’t have it yet, but there’s indications that that will materialize in a positive way,” Bell said. “We’re looking to have that resolved by the end of this month or soon thereafter.”

–Katie Lannan

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