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MBTA: Fare hikes & fee increases

Mr. Fix It can make it rain, but can he stop it from snowing?

Campaign finance records filed this week showed Gov. Charlie Baker's fundraising haul for the year - his first in office - topped out at $2.79 million, an impressive take for a governor who won't face the voters again for another three years. But as temperatures in the region fell to more wintry readings, it didn't even require a snowflake to fall for the MBTA to once again start showing its age.

The cold was believed responsible for the derailment of a Haverhill line commuter train on Monday after a piece of rail cracked, the first in a series of system malfunctions throughout the week that had MBTA commuters dealing with significant delays along public transit routes.

Tens of millions of dollars and "winter resilience" planning efforts could not keep the MBTA running smoothly during the first full week that actually felt like winter this year. Baker has more at stake in the performance of the T than simply satisfied customers.

The ability, or not, of the MBTA to function this winter could determine how hard a sell fare increases become. The MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board voted this week to put two plans forward for public comment that would raise individual fares and the cost of a monthly pass between either 5 percent or 10 percent.

With a final decision expected in March, Baker is drawing a distinction between fare hikes and fee increases, which he has sworn off along with taxes for the budget he will file later this month. House Speaker Robert DeLeo is equally uninterested in looking to taxpayers to pay more for government in fiscal 2017, and said T fare hikes should be a last resort for the agency.

Late breaking, the Baker administration was poised all week to bring the ax down on state spending, and waited until late Fridayafternoon to let it fall. The pain, however, appeared relatively modest as the governor sliced roughly $50 million in state spending from the $34.1 billion budget, despite identifying a $320 million budget gap driven by a non-tax revenue shortfall.

A chunk of the deficiency will be made up, instead, by new federal revenue streams and higher than anticipated tax revenues through June. Budget Secretary Kristen Lepore said she expects to upgrade tax revenue projections next week.

Democrats were ready to, and did, pounce on Baker for the timing of the roll out, and advocates for tourism and small business development, as an example, might not like what they see with marketing and loan programs being cut. But a good deal of the trimming was enabled by cheaper gas and salary savings due to the timing of hiring ( or not) new employees after the early retirement program last year.

The cogs of the state Legislature slowly started churning again this week after a six week hiatus, but it will still be a few weeks until things shift into high gear. Nevertheless, DeLeo's House got to work right away debating a sentencing reform bill on Wednesday that would repeal a 1989 law linked to the "War on Drugs" era that mandates automatic license suspensions for all convicted drug offenders, even if the crime had nothing to do with the operation of a motor vehicle.

The House voted unanimously to repeal the law, but only after Republicans succeeded in inserting a carve-out for those convicted of trafficking in heroin and other illicit drugs, but not marijuana. Baker is generally supportive of the idea, but before the bill reaches his desk the House and Senate are going to have to reconcile their differences, which these days is never a small task.

Backers of the bill say automatic license suspensions unnecessarily hinder drug offenders from restarting their lives, holding down jobs or helping their families.

With the Senate not planning to meet formally until Jan. 21, the speaker seemed to relish in the fact that he could jumpstart the second year of the session before his counterpart.

"The House kicks off 2016 w/ energy, commitment to tackle tough issues. TY to my colleagues for your dedication to MA," DeLeo Tweeted early in the week.

Before taking off for Puerto Rico on Thursday for a conference with other Senate presidents, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg all but put a stake in the effort to expand charter schools through the legislative process this year, calling it "an uphill climb" to get to 21 votes that would require "threading a needle." Even some of the few supporters of charter schools in the Senate concurred that the path to a majority in the Senate was narrow and getting rockier by the day.

A day after the House voted on the license suspension bill, DeLeo joined Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and others at Boston Children's Hospital to detail steps they're taking to grow the digital health sector in Massachusetts, an industry with a strong footprint in Massachusetts that could grow even bigger with a little tending.

Leaders hope to develop an "innovation hub" with work space for start-ups and networking opportunities to link entrepreneurs with hospitals and other institutions to bring technology to market quickly.

That wasn't the only big announcement that drew Walsh from City Hall. The mayor travelled to the White House on Tuesday to be in the audience when President Barack Obama announced executive actions he would take to tighten the background check system for gun purchases and improve the enforcement of gun laws and treatment of mental health conditions that have contributed to gun violence across the country.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Congressman Seth Moulton were among the Democrats the White House would enlist during the week to back up his actions on guns, which Republican Baker said he had no problem with, especially an effort to improve the links between states and the federal mental health database.

DeLeo, who last year led the effort to sure up Massachusetts' gun control laws, also cheered the president as he put addressing imitation guns on his to-do list for the year.

Rep. Dan Cullinane's bill that would require orange stripes be painted on all replica guns, including BB and pellet guns, had a hearing where the gun lobby said criminals could easily disguise their weapons as toys. But DeLeo clearly wants to follow Walsh's lead in the city of Boston by doing something to help police do their jobs and avoid unnecessary shootings or deaths.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Fair to increase the fare? MBTA facing tall task in selling of new fare hikes to commuting public.

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