Gov. Baker says housing production bill is a solid ‘triple’

  • The newly renovated Senate chamber now includes the addition of a bust of Frederick Douglas, the first person of color depicted in the chamber, and a quote from him on the south wall. shns photo

Published: 3/1/2019 11:28:57 PM

Maybe it’s because meteorological winter officially ended this week. Or maybe it’s because the Red Sox are playing actual spring training games in Florida.

But Gov. Charlie Baker really took a shine to a baseball analogy used by Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll this week to describe his new (same as the old) housing production bill. “It’s a triple all day long,” she said.

Baker liked that quip so much that he kicked off a post press conference scrum with reporters by asking for an indulgence to revisit it: “The point she was making about why this legislating is not a single, but in fact a triple to us is because this makes it possible for communities to create housing,” he said.

The need for proponents like Baker and Driscoll to convince others, namely legislators, that the “Housing Choices” bill is more than just a baby step forward on housing has to do with the fact that Baker is hoping that by doing essentially the same thing this session he can achieve a different result.

The governor’s housing bill filed Wednesday is, in fact, identical to the version of the bill that came out of the Housing Committee last year, but never emerged for a floor vote. Baker wants to make it so that a simple majority vote on a city or town board responsible for zoning is enough to approve many types of housing projects that currently require a two-thirds vote.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo suggested the failure of the bill last session had little to do with the substance of Baker’s bill, and more to do with the fact that DeLeo ran out of time while trying to negotiate with legislators who wanted to broaden the scope of the zoning reforms.

“I would have preferred to have that pass, what the governor had done last year,” DeLeo said.

Maybe that’s a good sign for the governor, who is losing one of his top advisors.

The administration’s chief legal counsel Lon Povich announced this week that he was moving on after four years and 130 judges confirmed. To fill his place, Baker chose Bob Ross, who is currently the top attorney in the governor’s budget office, but also spent years in the Senate as a top policy advisor to the president and understands the way that branch thinks.

Ross’s legal acumen might not be put to the test in the near term by the idea of experimenting with safe injection sites, which have been used in other countries to reduce the number of lives being lost to opioid addiction. The governor seemed to think that was pretty cut and dry.

The Harm Reduction Commission set up by the Legislature to explore the idea of medically supervised safe spaces for drug addicts agreed that not only do they seem to have some benefits, but that Massachusetts should start a pilot program with at least one, but preferably two or more sites.

Baker didn’t seem to dwell too much on the oxymoron-or-life-saver debate. For him, the question had a much more black-and-white answer. “It’s illegal,” he said, repeatedly, sometimes with extra emphasis in case his point was being lost.

“I’m not going to stand around and wait for something that can’t happen,” Baker said.

And the governor is not without his reasons for landing on this position. U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling has left little doubt that he views safe injection sites as a violation of federal drug law, and has promised to enforce that law if push comes to shove.

Some in the Legislature, including Sen. Cindy Friedman, think the potential benefits make it worth calling Lelling on this threat in case the prosecutor is bluffing, but the governor isn’t one of them.

If Massachusetts is to experiment with safe injection sites any time soon, it’s probably going to take a supremely convincing argument that has yet to be presented, or a veto-proof majority in the Legislature.

The House had a veto-proof majority to add $135 million in fiscal 2019 spending to the books. In fact, the supplemental budget bill passed unanimously in what became the first significant policy act of the 2019-2020 session by either branch.

DeLeo and Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz said the decision to trim about $30 million from Baker’s initial request was made out an abundance of caution as tax revenues have fallen off the pace.

“I don’t think right now in terms of revenue we’re at the point of panic or anything like like that, but I think we’re cautious,” DeLeo said.

The budget bill, which includes $30 million for low-income heating assistance, now moves to the Senate where there’s some interest in seeing whether the two branches, under new leadership, can work together efficiently to pay the bills, or if this becomes a back-and-forth debate over priorities.

The Senate did not have any legislation on its agenda this week, but it did meet to celebrate the $22.6 million renovation of its historic chamber and the addition of a quote to the wall from abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “Truth, justice, liberty, and humanity will ultimately prevail.”


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