BOSTON- During the annual State of the Commonwealth address, Gov. Charlie Baker emphasized the progress Massachusetts has made on goals including lowering the unemployment rate, battling the opioid epidemic and improving welfare, state education and access to high-speed internet.
A full chamber of approximately 300 of Baker’s supporters as well as approximately 100 public citizens gathered at the Massachusetts State House Tuesday night for the speech.
“About 750 days ago, Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and I stood right here and we pledged to work with you and others to move this Commonwealth forward,” Baker said. “We have done just that.”
Baker highlighted programs that will provide jobs to veterans, improve mental health care and provide older adults with services after retirement.
“We built a bipartisan team [and] worked in partnership with the legislature to look for common ground,” Baker said. “We worked to fix the economy, the government, passed groundbreaking legislation and focused on growing our economy, and it’s working.”
Massachusetts economy is flourishing with the addition of over 120,000 new jobs, Baker pointed out, and the unemployment rate has also dropped from 6.5 percent to 3.7 percent in the past year.
“Our economy is among the strongest in the nation,” Baker said. “Today, more people are working than in any time in the past 20 years, and our welfare caseload has dropped by 25 percent.”
Baker showcased the improvement in funding for education funding, and how public higher education has become more affordable for Massachusetts students.
“Our students are number one in the nation in both math and reading for the sixth straight year,” Baker said. “Our shared commitment to funding local schools has led to an all-time high in Chapter 70 education funding, representing an increase of 227 million over the past two years.”
Homelessness also came into focus during Baker’s address, as the population of homeless families in hotels and motels has been reduced from 1,500 to fewer than 100 families.
“We’ve been working with housing authorities and other housing providers to help families avoid homelessness in the first place, and relying on more permanent solutions,” Baker said.
Baker also took time to comment on the ongoing opioid epidemic.
“For the first time, medical, dental and nursing schools are required to master opioid therapy and pain management,” Baker said. “A continuing education on these issues is now a part of our state listening programs and after years and years of increases, the number of opioids prescribed in Massachusetts is now down by 15 percent.”
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s operating deficit has also been cut in half, Baker said, allowing for double the improvements to its infrastructure.
Though improvements will still take years, “we finally have a team on the ground and a plan in place to get the job done,” Baker said.
Baker concluded by addressing the issue of compromise in the Commonwealth and how to move forward following the 2016 presidential election.
Baker said the Commonwealth’s job is “to represent Massachusetts to Washington, and not Washington to Massachusetts.”
“We can and we do disagree, but we do listen,” Baker said. “We learn and make the best decisions we can on energy, public records, pay equity, addiction, economic development and a host of other issues you’ve compromised with one another and with us.”
Baker said issues of compromise are destined to create difficult discussions and opportunities for conflict.
“It’s one thing to stand in a corner and shout insults at your opponent, [but] it’s quite another to climb into the arena and fight for common ground,” Baker said. “I believe it’s this conversation that makes us strong.”
Several Massachusetts citizens who attended the address said they were there to evaluate Baker’s work as a public servant.
Peter Gray Wellman, 20, of Natick, Massachusetts, said he wanted to hear the speech because he said he has heard “mixed reviews” of Baker’s administration.
“Many people said they’re disappointed in his administration, and I’ve come today to hear what he has to say,” Wellman said before the address.
Wellman also expressed opposition to Baker’s stance on the recent legalization of recreational marijuana.
“I am for marijuana being legalized … and now he’s dragging his feet and making sure dispensaries won’t be opened for another year and a half,” Wellman said.
Alexandria Murphy, 20, of Somerset, Massachusetts, said she was glad that Baker specifically addressed the accomplishments of individuals in the Commonwealth.
“I’m really glad that … he addressed mental health and education as well bringing up the K-12 education – that $90 million – I’m really glad that they’re doing that,” Murphy said after the address.
Deborah Drew, 54 of Grafton, Massachusetts, said she enjoyed Baker’s message of compromise and teamwork.
“I think that [message] is important … especially with the national level of politics,” Drew said after the address. “Here in Massachusetts, we demonstrate the whole concept of working together, and I like the message where compromise is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness.”