By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON -- Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker, a former health insurance executive, has fielded calls from people unable to use the Health Connector website and matched them up with health insurance, he said Tuesday.
"A lot of those people have been calling the campaign and I've been talking to them and trying to help them find a solution," said Baker, who said usually the best solution is to go to the carriers, small brokers or "individual brokers who I basically beg to take on these people as favors to me based on my historical relationship with them."
Before a Tuesday afternoon audience at the Rapport Center at Suffolk University, Baker discussed raising the minimum wage, expressed support for tax cuts, and decried the failures of the Health Connector website to connect residents to health plans under the Affordable Care Act.
"We are failing people in Massachusetts because that Connector does not work, period," Baker said at the forum. "And we don't have good strategies for how to create workarounds for them to get them covered. I mean if I talk to one more person who wrote a check in December or January that was cashed by the Commonwealth of Mass. and still doesn't have anything...it's really scary stuff.
Baker said the ACA took management of health care out of state officials' hands and said the failings of the Connector site, which was supposed to link people to health plans, are a "much bigger problem than people realize."
After the forum, Baker told reporters he had favored suing the website contractor CGI, but later reconsidered when he learned from a news report that the state had known about the problems months in advance.
"If there's a case there to be made, the state should make it," Baker said. He said he also believes the state and the attorney general should stop defending the Department of Children and Families in a lawsuit brought by the group Children's Rights.
Baker also showed some support for the minimum wage, an issue that received the most rousing show of support during Gov. Deval Patrick's state of the state address.
Baker said he wants to see a minimum wage hike paired with unemployment insurance reforms, tax credits for small business and a state-based earned-income tax credit - a government program he said could use a re-branding.
"I wish it was called something else. I've tried to come up with some cooler names for it," Baker said, describing the federal program he said pays $60 billion to "low income working families" generally headed by a woman. Baker said the state could "piggy-back" on that, and later said the new credit he proposed could be in the range of $50 million to $150 million.
The state offers a credit at 15 percent of what people receive from the federal government, and in the 2012 tax year, 425,000 Massachusetts workers received $125.5 million, or about $295 per filer, according to the Department of Revenue.
A top official in the Weld and Cellucci administrations, Baker on Tuesday critiqued Patrick's budget proposal for using money from the rainy day fund, said he agrees with Speaker Robert DeLeo that there should be no new taxes this year, and said Patrick was doing the right thing by increasing funding for higher education and the Department of Children and Families.
Former Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, a leader in the move to repeal the state's casino law, quizzed Baker about his take on casinos. Baker said he has supported one casino - rather than the three resorts and one slots parlor in the law - and said voters should be allowed to decide whether it is repealed. Attorney General Martha Coakley's office has ruled a repeal effort is not eligible for the ballot because it would be unfair to developers who have a "reasonable expectation" the licensing process will play out.
Baker took a different tack from the woman who could be his general election opponent in November.
"I'm a go-slow on casinos," said Baker. He said, "I've said for a long time that I think the question belongs on the ballot."
Asked about his own state budget priorities, the former state secretary of administration and finance and chief of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care spoke about the value of local aid, which has absorbed some cuts, and said the state needs more scrutiny of health care "administrivia" which "chews up a lot of time and energy" on work that is "not terribly important."
Raised in Needham with a Republican father and Democratic mother who debated around the dinner table, the Swampscott resident is in his second tilt for the Corner Office having been defeated in 2010 in a three-person race won by Patrick.
Baker declined to discuss any others seeking the governorship, giving nearly identical answers to questions about Coakley, who bested him 44-31 in a new head-to-head poll; Mark Fisher, his lone contender for the Republican nomination; and Jeff McCormick, an independent who officially announced his candidacy Tuesday and said he would seek to lower the income tax from 5.2 percent to 5 percent.
"I'm going to run my race on my issues," Baker said as reporters asked him about McCormick.
Challenged on whether McCormick, an investor, has a better record of job creation, Baker said, "I took a health plan that was basically bankrupt and put together a great team and turned it into the number one health plan in the country for eight years in a row for members' satisfaction and clinical effectiveness. I'll pretty much let my record stand on its own at this point."
McCormick has said he wants to eventually bring the income tax down to 5 percent, where a 2000 voter referendum targeted the tax level to drop to - until lawmakers revised the ballot initiative in 2002, conditioning further rate reductions on economic growth.
"I'm always in favor of lowering taxes. You've got to make the case to the people. You've got to make the case to the Legislature, and you've got to demonstrate you can get there," Baker said, when asked if he would favor lowering the tax to 5 percent.
In 2010, Baker advocated lowering the income, sales and corporate taxes to 5 percent. But when he launched his candidacy last year, Baker created distance between his prior tax plan, saying, "I'm not a five-five-and-five guy. Asked in September if he still wants to bring taxes to those levels, he said, "First of all, I'm running for governor, not for emperor."
Asked to respond to a recent report recommending 44 policy changes to prevent gun violence, Baker said, "Massachusetts has some of the most restrictive and comprehensive gun laws in the nation, and I support those," and said he would need more time to review the recommendations.
Asked by an audience member what he would do to restore rail service to New Bedford, Baker said, "I think we should be able to figure out a way to do that, but I also think we should be able to think about it in both directions." Baker said cities such as New Bedford and Gloucester should look to Newburyport as a model for growing their economies.
Baker also recalled an incident he said illustrated the utility of avoiding the bully pulpit.
Gov. Bill Weld had been "hustling" to include a rebuild of North Station as part of the Boston Garden project, and necessary legislation "died" during a session lasting into the early morning, said Baker, who said Weld's aides showed up the next morning "incredibly angry," and told the governor he should "rip" the people responsible in a press conference. Weld said, "That's about the stupidest idea I've ever heard," and then worked with others to advance the project, which was completed not long after, Baker said.
"If it's just about scoring points, it may sound really good and it may look really good, and it may get you a ton of fun time in the media and on TV, but if you actually want to get something accomplished, you need to recognize and appreciate the fact that it's still a democracy with a small D, and you have to be willing and able to engage with people who don't necessarily see the world the same way you do," said Baker, who said that takes "discipline" and "endurance."