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Massachusetts Gov. Baker: Policies Must Align With Future Of Work

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker delivers his State of the Commonwealth address from his office, a far cry from the normal pomp and circumstance associated with the event during normal times.
Erin Clark
Boston Globe / Pool / State House News Service
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker delivers his State of the Commonwealth address from his office, a far cry from the normal pomp and circumstance associated with the event during normal times.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker sought to reassure an impatient public Tuesday night that their chance to get vaccinated from COVID-19 would come. But the governor also used the unusual circumstances of his "State of the Commonwealth" address to offer people encouragement after a trying year.

Instead of laying out a detailed policy agenda, Baker's remarks revolved almost entirely around how Massachusetts has and continues to respond to the COVID-10 pandemic. He offered no further glimpses into the budget he intends to file Wednesday, or hint at any legislation he might be working on.

"The end is in sight – but for the next few months, we must continue to stay vigilant and take steps to stop the spread," Baker said. "Know this – we will beat this virus. And life will begin to return to normal."

Baker delivered the speech standing from his ceremonial office at the State House, surrounded by a small group of aides, a pool TV camera, and one news photographer. There were no pauses for applause, hugs or pats on the back as he made his way down a red carpet.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito watched from home, according to aides, as did House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka. It was just the governor and a camera lens.

Much of the speech focused on the sacrifices made by the people of Massachusetts, and the way people came together to support each other. He quoted from Walt Whitman and the feel-good comedy "Ted Lasso," about an American football coach who goes to London to manage a Premier League soccer team. And he discussed the ways he saw the state rising to the challenge of COVID-19.

But Baker also allowed that the time will come when the pandemic is over.

"As we come out of the pandemic, one issue we need to get right is the future of work," Baker said.

The Republican said people may never want to go back to the office five days a week, virtual conferences may replace in-person gatherings, and employers will need to rethink recruitment and training.

"It's critical that we understand this – and lean into what this reset means – so that we create the community building, housing, economic development and transportation programs that align with these changes. Make no mistake, we have always lived by our wits. Figured out the future and got there first. This time will be no different," Baker said.

The two-term Republican has not said yet whether he will run for another four-year term in 2022, but after seeing his second-term agenda hijacked by the COVID-19 pandemic-era this speech was being scoured for clues as Democrats and Republicans consider whether they want to run.

Mariano and Spilka both said they look forward to working with Baker this session, and to reviewing the budget the governor intends to file on Wednesday. But some turned off their televisions feeling let down by the governor's speech.

"We appreciate Governor Baker's positivity and hope for the future of the Commonwealth and a desire to get the economy back on track. But tonight, the states job creators needed to hear more from the Governor on how Massachusetts plans to assist struggling small businesses in their hour of need," said Chris Carlozzi, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business.

Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, a Northampton Democrat, didn't appreciate the "shout out" Baker gave to the Legislature for working with him on housing, policing and climate legislation.

"I feel like bragging about bills you vetoed (policing, climate) is the wrong look as is acting like our economy has healed when unemployment cases keep rolling in, many restaurants are closed, and small businesses are hanging on by a thread," Sabadosa tweeted.

And MassFiscal Alliance spokesman Paul Craney said the speech "did very little to alleviate this perception" that Beacon Hill is not sacrificing and tightening its financial belt the way many small businesses have had to.

While Baker ultimately signed the policing accountability bill and highlighted it in his speech Tuesday, Mariano and Spilka are preparing for votes Thursday to send back to Baker the same climate bill he vetoed earlier this month.

Without offering details, the governor did cite a few areas where he said "more needs to be done," mentioning environmental justice, transportation, resiliency, conservation and energy efficiency.

The speech came as Baker's efforts to vaccinate 4 million adults in Massachusetts have come under intense scrutiny. The state's vaccine distribution efforts have lagged other Northeast states and put it in the bottom-half of states in the country for per-capita doses administered.

Before the governor even spoke, Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman Gus Bickford released a memo taking the administration to task for its COVID-19 response, describing the state as lagging in its vaccine rollout and Baker as someone who was slow to respond to the post-summer surge.

Bickford later criticized the governor for "tepid comments" about the national political climate and for not forcefully standing up to leaders in his party for the violence that unfolded at the Capitol.

Baker addressed the vaccination issue by highlighting the state's plan announced Monday to open three new mass vaccination sites in Springfield, Boston and Danvers in the next two weeks and to have 165 public vaccination sites operating by Feb. 15 with the capacity to administer approximately 305,000 doses every week.

"Everyone has shown tremendous patience throughout this yearlong ordeal and many are justifiably running out of it. I am, too. That's why this cannot happen fast enough," Baker said.

He also encouraged people 75 or older to begin registering for vaccinations starting Wednesday for vaccines that will become available to them on Feb. 1.

"And as the federal vaccine distribution program kicks into high gear over the next few months, anyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one at a site near them. And we can start to put this pandemic behind us," Baker said.

The transcript of the speech ran 3,618 words long, which was just 144 words less than last year's speech, but felt shorter without applause lines.

The governor thanked first responders and health care workers, highlighted his administration's nearly $700 million small business relief program and the expansion of sidewalk dinning as a lifeline for restaurants and discussed his administration's efforts to allow children to return to school.

He described the economy as "in much better shape" than it was this past spring, and predictably declared the state of the commonwealth "strong."

"Besides putting Covid in the rear view mirror once and for all, my biggest wish for 2021 is for all of us to take Walt Whitman’s charge to heart. Be curious – not judgmental," Baker said. "If we do, I believe we will all grow."

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