Democratic leaders on board with Baker climate goals

Boston Statehouse

Kathleen Theoharides (center), Gov. Charlie Baker’s environmental affairs chief, applauded as the governor laid out an “ambitious” carbon emissions goal. (Photo: Chris Van Buskirk/SHNS)

BOSTON (SHNS) – A new climate commitment Gov. Charlie Baker made in his State of the Commonwealth address Tuesday night earned a warm reception from Democratic legislative leaders on Tuesday night, but the governor’s pledge of $135 million in new funding for the MBTA did not knock House Speaker Robert DeLeo or Senate President Karen Spilka off their interest in pursuing new revenues for transportation.

The second-term governor did not propose any new revenues in his speech, nor did he draw a line in the sand on new taxes. With just over six months remaining of formal legislative business for the year, he instead nudged lawmakers to take up bills he’s filed on housing, transportation and health care.

On climate change, Baker said “time is not our friend” and touted a still-forming regional effort to reduce carbon emissions from transportation. He said he would commit the state to achieving the “ambitious” goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a more aggressive track than the current target that the state reduce its emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

DeLeo and Spilka said they supported Baker’s goal of net-zero emissions, and Spilka confirmed that the Senate climate bill to be rolled out Thursday will also reflect that goal. DeLeo said he too was supportive of trying to achieve net-zero emissions, and hoped to get a bill done this session.

Sen. Marc Pacheco, the chair of the Senate Global Warming and Climate Change Committee, has been pushing for his colleagues to take up a climate bill, and called Baker’s announcement “fantastic.”

“It helps us, I think, get an agreement between the Senate, hopefully the House, and the executive branch, so if we can do that, we can get a bill on his desk and get that adopted, and we’ll be one of the leading states in the nation,” he said.

Pacheco said writing a net-zero commitment into state law as a “legally binding requirement,” like the existing emissions reductions targets, would give Massachusetts “one of the most aggressive” pieces of legislation in the country.

Baker’s commitment won praise from environmental groups and solar energy advocates. The Environmental League of Massachusetts called it “the kind of action we need from our elected officials to protect ourselves from the worst impacts of the climate crisis,” and Erika Niedowski of the Coalition for Community Solar Access said Massachusetts can get a “running start” on expanding access to clean energy “by ramping up its commitment to community solar.”

Baker pitched his $18 billion bond bill for transportation and said the budget he intends to file on Wednesday will “include an increase of $135 million in operating funds for the T” to go towards safety and service work at the transit system. He also called out transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft as entities that “clog our roads and operate with very little oversight,” and urged lawmakers to “act quickly” on a bill he filed that would impose new safety and data-collection regulations.

The governor did not, however, touch at all upon what is shaping up to be a difficult debate in the House this winter over how to raise additional money for transportation.

Asked if he took that omission as a green light to pursue some tax hikes for transportation, DeLeo said, “He’s made it very clear in terms of his opinion relative to gas taxes and the like, so I’m not sure, but it was interesting that he didn’t mention that.”

The speaker indicated that Baker’s speech didn’t dissuade him from embarking on a transportation revenue debate, which he has said the House hopes to do before taking up the annual budget this spring.

Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat, said he agreed with Baker that Massachusetts was in overall “good shape,” but thought the speech had “too much focus on the T and public transit in the Boston area, and not across the commonwealth.”

“I think we have to feed the beast across the commonwealth and not just focus so much on the T with those kinds of dollars,” Pignatelli told the News Service.

One way Baker has proposed to generate new revenue for transportation improvements across the state is by forging a cap-and-trade alliance with other eastern states to reduce vehicle emissions, but some other New England governors have expressed concern about the program’s impact on consumer fuel prices.

Like DeLeo, Spilka said the Transportation Climate Initiative represents a potential longer-term revenue source, but said the Legislature must look at short-term revenue as well to meet the “urgent, urgent, immediate needs of the T, the commuter rail, to decrease congestion across the state.”

“Even if a few, particularly the smaller states don’t join in. I think they will end up regretting it. I hope that it does come to fruition,” Spilka said about TCI.

Baker delivered his address the day the U.S. Senate began its impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, which the Republican governor did not directly comment on. He said Massachusetts leaders refuse “to engage in the partisan nonsense that consumes so much of our national politics and by putting the people of our Commonwealth first,” and earned a standing ovation from lawmakers when he called for politicians here to rise above “the siren call of sloganeering and cheap shots” this election year.

Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman Gus Bickford criticized Baker “When was the last time you had a conversation about politics for 30 minutes, and never spoke of Donald Trump? That’s what Charlie Baker just did in his major annual speech tonight,” Bickford said. “Charlie Baker and Karyn Polito continue to nibble around the edges and refuse to really take on the critical issues we face. This ‘victory lap’ tonight felt like it was in slow motion. When people ask themselves if things have gotten easier or harder over the last five years, I don’t think Baker and Polito are going to enjoy the answer.”

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance disagrees with Baker over the Transportation Climate Initiative, but noted that Baker is the first governor who has been able to celebrate the lowering of the income tax to 5 percent since voters approved it in 2000.

DeLeo said he wished he had heard more from Baker about the governor’s plans for the Department of Children and Families, while the Fund Our Future Campaign was highly critical of the lack of focus on the cost of higher education in the speech.

Baker highlighted the $1.5 billion, seven-year school finance overhaul he signed into law last November, a bill that does not contain any new revenues or dedicated funding sources. The fiscal 2021 budget proposal Baker is set to announce Wednesday afternoon will contain the first round of investments under that law.

“Many people have questioned the state’s ability to fund our new education law,” he said. “But I think that may be the easiest part. The harder part will be implementing the proven strategies in schools and districts throughout Massachusetts that change the game for kids.”

He also announced a new initiative to “transform” vocational schools to provide classes in three shifts, so that adults can take classes in the evening, traditional high school students after their regular school day, and full-time vocational students during their regular class hours.

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