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Scot Lehigh

The two faces of Baker

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / June 16, 2010

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IT’S NOT quite Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. So let’s call it . . . The Strange Case of Charlie and Chucky.

Charlie is the hard-charging policy whiz who was the soul of the Weld administration. That Baker was dubbed the smartest man in state government, and other than Bill Weld himself, he might well have been.

And unlike his boss, Baker wasn’t caught up in the preppy affectation of casual brilliance. He liked to delve into the data and untangle a problem. As a Republican candidate for governor, Charlie’s appeal is that he’s smart, understands what the real issues in state government are, and has the perseverance to pursue them.

And then there’s Chucky, his edgy alter ego, who treats this campaign as though it were, well, child’s play. He’s the candidate who makes far-fetched promises, caricatures his Democratic rival’s record, and is ready to seize on ill-advised expedients to inject some populist energy into his campaign.

It was Charlie who was responsible for the Baker’s Dozen, the 13 mostly serious and substantive reform ideas announced in early May. One highlight is his call for giving cities and towns the same power of health care plan design that state government has, provided that their plans are comparable to the state’s offerings. Another: calling for the repeal of the Pacheco Law so the state can pursue savings by hiring private firms for functions like highway maintenance, toll collections, and park management.

The Baker’s Dozen includes his previously announced plan for further state pension reform, plus a sensible proposal for increasing the age, length of service, and contributions required for state retirees to get state-subsidized health benefits.

One stand that’s particularly relevant this week is his rejection of Project Labor Agreements, exclusionary pacts that put upward pressure on public construction costs by effectively limiting the work to union firms. Why? Because on Monday, the University of Massachusetts Building Authority voted to impose a PLA on some $750 million of work planned for UMass/Boston over the next seven years. Last week, meanwhile, Charlie called for reworking an unemployment insurance program so generous that its expense is considered a drag on job creation here.

Yet all of that is marred by Chucky, who is far too ready to play to the cheap seats. Chucky is the candidate who wants to revive the dubious Romney policy of deputizing several dozen state police officers to detain illegal immigrants, something law-enforcement experts consider counterproductive.

Chucky’s the one who has promised to cut the sales tax and the income tax back to five percent — but without laying out a realistic plan for how he’d balance the state budget without the lost revenue. And make no mistake, with the state stuck in a long-term fiscal crunch, that task will be tough enough without big new tax cuts. According to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, we’ll start the next fiscal year with a $2.5 billion structural gap. Baker’s tax cuts would soon add another $1.5 billion to that gap.

It’s also Chucky who went on TV yesterday with a new ad that flays the Democrats for “reckless spending.’’

Now, you can certainly argue Patrick erred by reversing some Romney-imposed budget cuts during his first few months in office. But that move notwithstanding, he’s hardly been a spendthrift governor. On average, since Patrick’s first budget, state spending has increased 2.4 percent per year, the taxpayers foundation says. On average, spending went up 4.81 percent per year during Baker’s time as Secretary of Administration and Finance.

Nor is excess spending the real nub of our budgetary troubles. “The fundamental cause of the state’s fiscal problems is the collapse of tax revenues,’’ notes Michael Widmer, the foundation’s president.

Add it all up, and Charlie’s brand is suffering because of Chucky’s tactics.

Says one business leader who is inclined to like Baker: “There are some thoughtful people Charlie could appeal to, but I’m not so sure he’s making the case right now.’’

How can he, when Chucky is playing such a prominent role in the campaign?

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

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