SPRINGFIELD – Gov. Charlie Baker spoke about his first 50 days in office and the challenges he sees ahead before a room of 800 people who attended the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield’s (ACCGS) Outlook 2015.
He noted it was his 50th day in office on Feb. 27 and he said with a smile, “I’m learning a lot of new things about snow.” He carried a Koffee Kup Boston Cream Pie cupcake to the lectern, which has become a trademark for him not only during his campaign but also afterwards as part of several football bets with governors of other states.
Covering a number of topics, Baker said that he is building his cabinet with Republicans, Democrats and independents. He said that in “a world of labels, I want to focus on the work.”
The work on which he has focused has ranged from snow removal issues, particularly in the eastern half of the state, to the $750 million mid-budget year deficit. He thanked the Legislature for working “very collaboratively” to close the current budget deficit and said there will be a more than $1 billion structural budget deficit facing the next fiscal year.
He noted the continuation of the effort started in the Patrick Administration to bring broadband service to all communities in Western Massachusetts.
The governor said among new initiatives said he is forming a Taskforce on Opioid Addiction and said he is concerned about the link between prescription drugs and addiction. He recounted how his 21 year-old son injured himself and was prescribed 80 doses of Percostat. Baker said he threw out 70 of the pills.
“We’re way too casual with this stuff,” he said.
He also spoke of closing the state’s skills gap – the difference between what employers need and what workers have as skills – as the Commonwealth’s “number one economic development issue.”
Speaking to reporters before his appearance, Baker talked about the budget shortfall. He sidestepped assigning blame to the Patrick Administration and said, “The Commonwealth’s spending far exceeds its growth and revenue.” The current level of state spending, he added, is not sustainable.
Asked how he would address this shortfall, Baker said he would not cut local aid or raise taxes.
Baker attributed the increase in energy bills because “the Commonwealth of Massachusetts didn’t do the work we should have done at the state to deal with our distribution problem. What I mean by that is the source point for energy right now is actually pretty cheap. The problem we have in the Commonwealth is that we can’t get it here and the reason we can’t get it here is the state did not make the investment in pipeline technology that we should have made over the course of the past few years. It’s a disappointment. It’s a shame. It’s a problem.”
He added he has recently spoken to other New England governors about the issue. Baker said the “single biggest thing we can do” to address higher energy costs is to expand pipeline capacity.
Baker said he has spoken to Federal Emergency Management Agency officials about helping Massachusetts communities hit hard by this year’s winter and that he will support legislation that would allow municipalities to amortize the cost of this year’s snow removal over two years.
He said the rebuilding of the Interstate 91 viaduct should start in May or June and “has the full attention my administration.”
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito also attended Outlook 2015 but did not speak. She did meet with the press after the program.
Polito said Baker has designated her as the point person between his administration and cities and towns in the Commonwealth “as a way to establish a really strong relationship both ways.”
She added her efforts would include “encouraging and incentivizing our cities and towns to employ best practices and through that incentivizing we feel we will keep our campaign of making Massachusetts great everywhere, not just in some places.”
A small business owner herself, Polito will be forming a small business advisory group in “region by region around the Commonwealth.”
She will also be working on assisting women who are homeless to regain economic stability.