Meet Charlie Baker: The Man Destined to Become Our Next Governor
Another controversy from Baker’s time in state government involves his role in the financing of the Big Dig. In March, when the Globe‘s Brian McGrory asked Baker about the decision during the Weld administration to pay for a large portion of the massive public-works project by borrowing against future federal highway funds, Baker maintained that he was “one of about 50 people” with input on the decision. Subsequent reporting by the paper, however, found that it was primarily Baker himself who crafted the plan to fund construction via heavy borrowing, the repayment of which would fall to future administrations. Besides calling Baker’s honesty into question, the story undercut his assertions that the Weld administration, and by extension the one he would lead if elected, was all about taking responsibility, about solving today’s problems today.
When Weld is asked about his administration’s role in the public-works fiasco, he says it was actually his lieutenant governor, Paul Cellucci, who oversaw financing of the Big Dig. “I didn’t remember much Baker on the Big Dig,” he says. “But Paul Cellucci was in charge of a group that met monthly on the financing of the Big Dig. Paul and I were like alter egos. And I absolutely laid that one off on him because I knew it was going to be complex.” Cellucci chuckles when told Weld’s version of events. He says Weld asked him to chair “an interagency group” charged with keeping construction moving forward. “We really didn’t focus on financing too much,” Cellucci says. “The financing was more the governor’s office and the legislature.” The Big Dig is the Afghanistan of Massachusetts politics, an ugly, bottomless, legacy-destroying mess, passed from one administration to the next, owned by no one.
A final major criticism of Baker’s time in the Weld administration was his work to deregulate healthcare. True to their free-market instincts, Weld and Baker undid many of the state controls over how much hospitals could charge. Deregulation, they argued, would save money and improve services for everyone. Instead, says former Governor Michael Dukakis, “It’s been a disaster. We’re paying billions because of hospital deregulation. The market does not work in healthcare. Never has, never will. And when the market doesn’t work, you’ve got to regulate it. Charlie’s a very bright guy. But Charlie is largely responsible for the mess.”
Ironically, Baker himself would soon feel the pain of his own deregulation work. When Weld resigned in 1997, Cellucci became acting governor and asked Baker to be his running mate on the 1998 ticket. Baker declined and instead left state government. In 1999 he was named CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care – an enormous company that, following years of mismanagement, was in serious jeopardy.
“The plan was in big trouble,” Baker recalls. “People were concerned about its ability to pay its bills.” Baker instituted a series of cost-saving measures – outsourcing administrative functions, reorganizing the provider network, changing the pharmacy benefit manager – that normally might take three years but were carried out in just 90 days during the summer of 1999. Baker also made the decision, which he calls one of the most difficult of his career, to pull Harvard Pilgrim out of Rhode Island, a move that left 1,000 people without a job and 200,000 others in need of new health insurance.