By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE — Once upon time, it could have been a watershed moment for the city of Boston and proponents of bringing the Olympic games to the Hub.
The release of the Brattle Group report, with its potential to unlock Gov. Charlie Baker’s support for the games, or doom their chances in the minds of Beacon Hill leaders, might have been the story of the summer.
Instead, the report landed this week with a thud, an artifact of curiosity with few real life implications. The United States Olympic Committee’s impatience with lackluster public support gave way to a decision last month to pull the plug on Boston’s Olympics dreams before the Brattle Group could even attempt to quantify the financial risks to the Commonwealth, which it did in great detail.
Boston 2024 attempted to poke holes in the Brattle Group report and its methodology, but by that point it seemed irrelevant at best.
Supplanting the Olympics on front pages from Boston to Worcester was the latest tragic story to rock the Department of Children Families, presenting Baker and his administration with its first serious test since the winter’s transit boondoggle.
For Baker, the situation of a dead 2-year-old girl and another foster child in critical condition from the same foster home in Auburn elicited the type of criticism he never faced when he was praised for being a take-charge executive standing up to Mother Nature and a cranky public transit system.
Baker, of course, used the woes at the Department of Children and Families as a punching bag during his campaign for governor and stood by while outside groups blasted his Democratic opponent Martha Coakley for her response, or lack thereof in the estimation of some, to high profile cases of child neglect.
Flash forward to August 2015 and here Baker is, as other governors before him, dealing with a similar set of circumstance: one toddler dead, another hospitalized, all within four days of the last visit by a DCF social worker to the foster home.
What makes this case particularly tricky is that it remains unclear what exactly happened at that house last weekend. The autopsy has been completed, but officials have not publicly released a cause of death, and Baker has cautioned against jumping to conclusions prematurely.
Still, Baker said he has called “all hands on deck” to respond to this crisis, ordering up an internal review of how the department handled the Auburn case and pushing up the deadline for another report on an incident involving a neglected and abuse 7-year-old in Hardwick to the end of this month.
“This is my highest priority, believe me,” Baker said at a Monday press conference. Despite a hiring spree of social workers at the department, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said caseloads have remained stubbornly high, the result of a 30 percent explosion in cases overseen at DCF over the past 19 months.
As everyone awaited answers from Auburn, Baker spent the middle part of the week traveling to the Midwest where he dropped off his youngest child, daughter Caroline, at Miami University of Ohio for her first year of college, browsed for some Yankee Candles at Bed Bath and Beyond, and, of course, posed for some selfies.
When he wasn’t under pressure, Baker was exerting it, joining with Senate President Stanley Rosenberg to call on University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan and the board of trustees to revisit tuition and fee hikes imposed starting in the fall semester.
The rationale, according to the political leaders, is that UMass got more funding than it had assumed in June when trustees passed the increases in the first place. Still, the reality is that UMass had asked for about $578 million in fiscal 2016, and received $531.8 million. That’s more than the $526 million originally recommended by Baker, but not by much.
Meehan said maybe the university will consider rebates for students in the spring if lawmakers open the state’s wallet to shell out more funding, including $11 million for collective bargaining contracts. File this under: something to watch when lawmakers return in September with a supplemental budget bill on the agenda.
Speaking of agendas, one of the governor’s main policy priorities this spring and early summer became securing the authority he needed to reform the MBTA after last winter’s long commuter nightmare, not the least of which was a suspension of the “Pacheco Law” to ease the process of privatizing some services.
MassDOT gave a glimpse of what it had in mind this week when it was pushing the more abstract concept of suspending the privatization law, rolling out its idea to test the waters for giving 32 express, late-night and underutilized bus routes to a private carrier.
The concept will go before the new MBTA Fiscal Management and Control Board next week, where undoubtedly union leaders will continue to decry the effort, as they did this week. Boston Carmen’s Union Local 569 President James O’Brien blasted Baker and his team for going back on their word to not “privatize the T” and lay off workers, but it’s hard to understand what they thought was going to happen when Baker asked to suspend the Pacheco Law.
For what it’s worth, MBTA Interim General Manager Frank DePaola said no one will be losing their jobs, and drivers and buses on privatized routes will be reassigned to more traveled MBTA routes to improve overall service.
With members of Congress back home in their districts this August, the state’s delegation continued to fall in line with the White House over Secretary of State John Kerry’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Sen. Edward Markey became the latest to announce his support for the deal, leaving just Congressmen Joseph Kennedy, Michael Capuano, Richard Neal and William Keating still sitting on the fence.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Latest DCF tragedy proves no governor, no matter how good a manager, is immune to the challenges presented by the foster care and child welfare system.