August 6, 2018

Baker vetoes welfare benefits, traffic congestion tolling bills

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Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed bills that would have lifted a cap on welfare benefits, established a congestion tolling pilot program and raised the number of allowed hours a state retirees can work.

Gov. Charlie Baker on Friday made a dent in the flurry of bills that landed on his desk in the closing weeks of July, vetoing three and returning two with recommended amendments.

The vetoed bills -- which would have lifted a cap on welfare benefits, established a congestion tolling pilot program and raised the number of allowed hours a state retirees can work -- each originated as policy sections in this year's budget, and Baker had previously returned them to the Legislature with amendments.

The three vetoed budget sections cannot be overridden at this point by the Legislature, which held its last formal session for the year on Tuesday. Lawmakers sent Baker a budget for this fiscal year on July 18, limiting the amount of time they had to respond to his vetoes and amendments.

The House last Friday began its overrides of Baker's nearly $50 million in vetoed spending, a process both branches wrapped up on Monday after a rapid succession of votes.

But the almost $42 billion budget had included language eliminating a cap on welfare benefits for families who have another child while already receiving assistance. Baker had sought to attach to it additional changes to the way transitional aid to families with dependent children is calculated. He said that without those reforms, there would be inequity in the system, and the state would have removed an incentive for parents to return to work.

Lawmakers rejected Baker's amendment, forcing Baker to decide between signing the bill or using his veto pen. Rep. Marjorie Decker has said lawmakers will try removing the cap again when the new session begins in January.

"We are extremely disappointed that Governor Baker vetoed the family cap repeal," said Deborah Harris of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and Naomi Meyer of Greater Boston Legal Services, in a statement. "By choosing not to Lift the Cap on Kids, he has kept a law in place that harms vulnerable children and families in Massachusetts. As a result of this decision, 8,700 children will continue to be denied benefits that help their families provide them with essential items like diapers and clothing."

In rejecting the congestion tolling pilot, Baker wrote that a test of whether it is feasible to charge different tolls at different times is unnecessary because the state's all-electronic tolling system has the ability to support such a program.

"While automobile congestion is a problem on the roads of the Commonwealth, lowering tolls for drivers on the small number of roadways with tolls is not an effective response to road congestion, disadvantages those who must drive during the busiest times to get to work and school, and reduces the revenue available to maintain and upgrade those roadways," he wrote.

Supporters of the pilot had said lowering toll prices during off-peak hours could help shift discretionary traffic to times other than rush hour, easing congestion on busy roads.

Baker wrote that lawmakers' proposal to increase the amount of time a retiree with a state pension can work for a government entity from 960 hours to 1,200 hours "goes too far in allowing employees to work nearly full time while collecting a pension without any corresponding changes to improve the current practice."

Baker also signed three bills laying out bond terms and a bill creating a sick leave bank for a state employees.

Bills dealing with veterans benefits, opioids, economic development, clean energy, animal welfare and more are awaiting action by Baker.

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