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May 14, 2015

This week Governor Charlie Baker got a reminder that all state chief executives learn about policy: the governor can propose but the legislature will dispose. Baker’s proposed MBTA reform was killed in the Senate. Is it time for Baker to pick a fight with the Senate?

In The Power of American Governors: Winning on Budgets and Losing on Policy, Thad Kousser and Justin H. Phillips show that governors are at a distinct disadvantage in getting their policy proposals through the legislature. The legislature can take the governor’s entire policy proposal, some of it, or none of it. My friend President William M. Bulger enjoys recounting a meeting years ago with Governor William Weld. As the governor reached the office door to depart he turned and affably remarked, “Just remember, I’m the governor here.” The president responded, “Forget that nonsense, we’re the governor here.” That’s still true.

Governor Baker served under Governor Weld and learned a great deal from him. So let’s stop and ponder a few Boston Globe headlines from Governor Weld’s first few months in office:

Democrats mull Weld cuts in terms of political cost

Flaherty Raps Weld, Staff as 'Naive'

Democrats Prepare to Battle Weld's Service Tax Repeal

Weld Unveils Budget, Raps Leaders

Weld says he'd veto House plan

Democrats are wary of Weld clout

Weld Says He'll Target Foes of His Fiscal Plans

Governors are challenged in the policy game but they aren’t helpless. Kousser and Phillips argue that state executives do best when their party controls a large number of seats in the legislature, or they are very popular, or when their political capital is high “that is, when they are in their first term or when they have higher levels of public approval.”

Well, Governor Baker is in his first term and enjoys very high job approval ratings. There may not be a better time to spend political capital especially if MBTA reform is, as the Globe reports, his most important legislative priority.

Governor Baker has maintained cordial and professional relations with the legislature. As Governor Frank Sargent recognized, you have to as a Republican if you expect to get anything done. Still, Governor Weld did pretty well with the legislature and Weld knew when to pick a good fight.

William Weld, Charlie Baker

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