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Scot Lehigh

Baker’s aim misses on police reforms

'I think the state should continue to own up to its obligation on that one.' -- Charlie Baker, on funding the Quinn Bill "I think the state should continue to own up to its obligation on that one." -- Charlie Baker, on funding the Quinn Bill
By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / April 28, 2010

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ON MONDAY, Charlie Baker strode to the not-so-OK Corral (the State House, that is), drew his reform revolver, and took determined aim at a convenient campaign target.

Baker had come to Beacon Hill to position himself as the dauntless defender of the taxpayer, and to sound the alarm about the tax-raising, reform-stifling perils of one-party rule, after the House Ways and Means Committee tried to open a loophole in Prop. 2 1/2. That’s a legitimate political point, certainly, though in this case, Governor Patrick had already joined him in opposing the change.

But when more ornery issues loomed, that same aim commenced to waver. It wavered so much that by the time he was through, the GOP’s would-be lay-down-the-law-man had blasted several big holes in the brim of his handsome white hat.

When the topic turned to the Quinn Bill, which helps fund large raises for police officers who earn college degrees, Baker suddenly sounded less like a frugal friend of the individual wallet and more like a candidate courting the police unions. Under Patrick, Quinn Bill funding has been reduced from $50 million to $10 million in the current budget, with only $5 million proposed for fiscal 2011. Those cuts, Baker said, have transformed the program into the equivalent of an unfunded state mandate. So what would he do?, I asked.

“We should fund Quinn,’’ the Republican gubernatorial hopeful replied. “I think the state should continue to own up to its obligation on that one.’’

Reminded that Quinn degrees (particularly those earned before a 2003 tightening of standards) have been criticized as the product of diploma mills, Baker said he nevertheless supported an educational incentive for police.

“You can debate whether or not Quinn in its current configuration is exactly the right incentive,’’ he said, adding that the program could be reformed. But the larger issue is that this “is just one more place where the folks on Beacon Hill made the decision to make the locals figure out how to pay for a responsibility . . . the state committed to a number of years.’’

Not really. Not, at least, if those communities didn’t promise to replace any state dollars that were cut.

Suspicions that Baker was pursuing a police-pleasing pander were heightened when the questions turned to police details — and the Republican challenger expressed repeated reservations about Patrick’s policy of using civilian flagmen where practical on state-led construction projects.

“We’re paying more for civilian flaggers now than we paid for police officers,’’ Baker asserted. “Maybe it was a good idea as originally conceived, but the way it has been implemented certainly hasn’t worked for taxpayers.’’

Baker said he’d come up with “a better plan,’’ then added: “If we are spending more on flaggers than we are spending on police officers, I don’t know how that can be a good deal for taxpayers.’’

“He’s wrong about that,’’ Patrick retorted in an interview a few hours later. “The savings is somewhere between $10 and $11 million so far, and that’s based on mainly last year’s short construction season, so I expect the savings to be more in the coming construction season.’’

Luisa Paiewonsky, state highway administrator, says the state has saved $10.9 million in 18 months, mostly because it uses fewer flaggers than it did detail officers and doesn’t pay flaggers the mandatory four-hour minimum detail officers get.

When I mentioned savings in that range to Baker, he shrugged it off. “I’d be willing to . . . I’d like to know more about whether or not we’re saving any money,’’ he said.

For his part, Patrick offered this common-sense observation: “I take a lot of heat over this . . . but 49 other states seem to be able to get by with a blend of flaggers and police details and that’s all we’re trying to do.’’

Noting that Bill Weld, Baker’s mentor, once tried (briefly) to move to flaggers, the governor cast himself as the real reformer. “They talked about flaggers,’’ he said. “We did it.’’

Point to Patrick. Now, in fairness, Baker is more resolute than his rival on reform issues like controlling local health care costs and privatizing state services. But as Monday proved, the Republican challenger doesn’t have an uncontested claim to the role of reformer in the governor’s race.

After all, you can’t qualify as an intrepid good-government sheriff if there are precincts in town where you don’t dare tread.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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