City government

State power limits Boston’s vision

It’s a legal structure that cripples Boston, giving it far less control over its own destiny than other major cities in the country. Without the ability to independently generate new revenue streams to pay for ongoing and ever-increasing expenses spending on pensions, schools and public safety, the city has limited financial leeway to address the most pressing concerns of its residents, as the to skyrocket housing cost.

Even seemingly routine local affairs can get tangled for months in the slow process of the Legislative Assembly. In 2020, for example, the city requested permission from the state to waive a certain police age requirement for one person, Daryle LaMonica. The city (and LaMonica) waited almost five months for approval from the State House, the Senate and the governor. Former Mayor Martin J. Walsh wanted to create a fire cadet program for the city; the proposal spent 501 days in Beacon Hill before becoming law.

It took a state law, and more than a year, to delete a word named after the Boston State Retirement System, so it might just be called the Boston Retirement System.

Boston has no institutional voice in the operations of Logan Airport, East Boston, or the MBTA, the city’s transit lifeline. The governor, on the other hand, appoints a member of the town planning council. For decades, Massachusetts governors, not Boston mayors, selected the city’s police commissioners.

The city-state’s power imbalance is in part a century-old relic of the ethnic war between the Brahmins, who dominated Beacon Hill, and the Irish, who steadily won the rise of political power in Boston in the early 20th century. When the Irish took control of the capital, the old ruling class consolidated its power at the state level. That conflict, coupled with the 1966 approval of a constitutional amendment to home rule that left municipal power limited in Massachusetts, puts Boston at a competitive disadvantage, researchers have argued.

Longstanding restrictions on city power could become particularly scathing under Boston’s new mayor Michelle Wu, who has outlined an ambitious agenda that will depend, in large part, on the approval of state lawmakers and the government. governor.

“State law that hampers local decision-making when it comes to things like taxation, borrowing, and land-use decisions puts Boston at a competitive disadvantage,” said Keith Mahoney, who served as Director of State Relations at City Hall under former Mayor Thomas M. Menino. “The legislative process is designed to be deliberate. But sometimes this pace of deliberation does not match the pace of change needed or desired by local leaders.

A Boston Foundation 2007 Report found that Boston had far less power over its own affairs than comparable cities such as New York, Denver, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, and Seattle. Boston’s limited ability to generate new revenue streams leaves the city heavily dependent on property taxes, prompting officials to prioritize commercial development, argued the report.

In Massachusetts, municipalities often seek permission for Beacon Hill through so-called self-governance petitions, local policy proposals that are filed as bills in the State House and require the approval of the House, Senate and Governor to become law.

Few make it that far. Even though Democrats control the Legislature and the city, Boston’s mayors have failed to get their priorities across.

An analysis of Boston City Council staff found that of the roughly 100 home rule petitions Boston filed with the legislature from 2011 through 2021, fewer more than half became law. Successful petitions, on average, lasted almost 10 months before Beacon Hill granted final approval. Petitions that tend to be more successful are mundane administrative matters, while substantive proposals are more likely to languish and die. And over the past decade, analysis shows that only one autonomy petition has been approved in less than a month.

Those bleak prospects now face Wu as she presents her agenda to a legislature known for preferring an icy pace and for being skeptical of progressive ideas that clash with vested interests.

Wu acknowledged that the in-house petition system limits Boston, but said she is committed to moving forward both in partnership with the state government and in actions the city can. take independently.

“Would I take more flexibility and the ability for the municipal government, directly, to act more quickly? Absolutely. Any day,” Wu told The Globe. But, she added, “we will make any system work.”

Wu’s ability to make this system work will be tested in the coming months as she pursues rent control, a high-priced home sales tax and a proposal designed to make it easier for women and people in businesses of color to apply for municipal contracts.

Likewise, three Boston city councilors are sure to encounter state hurdles as they push for hundreds more liquor licenses, arguing they are needed to boost entrepreneurs of color in places like Mattapan , which is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city but only has 10 of Boston. Over 1,400 liquor permits. Their proposal, which still needs local approval before being sent to Beacon Hill for consideration, would also increase Boston’s licensing count by 10% over a decade, a provision that could save the city from having to return to the Assembly. legislative for another authorization slip.

Councilor Brian Worrell, whose district includes Mattapan and Dorchester and who is one of the measure’s sponsors, said the additional licenses are crucial to achieving equity for colored neighborhoods in the city and lamented that they could not be granted more quickly with local approval.

“We’re talking about someone from Springfield making decisions, or someone from Ludlow making decisions, if the city of Boston needs more liquor licenses,” Worrell said. “Looks like he should be reformed, right?”

But changing this system would be difficult, he acknowledged: “You would have to get the approval of the people who hold this power, in order to give up this power.

The Legislature could grant cities more power over specific issues, such as a certain tax, by passing new laws, but that would require a constitutional amendment to change or entirely repeal the current power structure of the Home Rule.

Neither seems at all likely. Representatives for the governor, the speaker of the Massachusetts House and the president of the Senate did not respond to questions from The Globe about whether they would support changes to the current self-reliance protocols.

Rick Su, a local government law expert at the University of North Carolina School of Law, compared Massachusetts towns to kids having to ask a parent, “Can I have permission to go to sleep ? May I have permission to stand up?

Su argued that the precise language of the Massachusetts law gives cities more power than they use, but that state and local authorities, as well as state courts, have come to interpret their authority in a narrow way, leading municipalities to a “culture of helplessness”.

“If you imagine that the point of local government is that it should be able to adapt creative responses to its local situation and respond more quickly than the state or the federal government, then having this process in which roughly everything, asking you for permission and it’s been several years, completely destroys the whole purpose,” Su said. “Why are there local governments?

Critics say municipal minutiae aren’t the best use of the legislature’s time. (Among the issues referred to the Legislative Assembly’s Municipalities Committee: legislation on moped hire in Oak Bluffs, health benefits for Swansea water commissioners and a planning permission surcharge in Winchester .)

Still, some argue that having one state policy is important, especially in Massachusetts, where many of the 351 municipalities are tiny.

“What we’re trying to do is develop broad, long-term policies that apply most of the time and in the majority of cases, barring exceptions,” said state Rep. Liz Malia, a longtime Boston Democrat who introduced a bill to adjust some speed limits.

“Keeping some kind of uniform policy around the general rules makes the most sense, and to make a change the town or city needs to explain why there are extraordinary circumstances.”

Rent control — a feature of Wu’s campaign that polls have shown most likely support from Boston voters — could prove particularly contentious. After voters banned it in a statewide referendum in 1994, rent control cannot be implemented in Boston or elsewhere without the approval of the state legislature. who has so far shown very little appetite to endorse it.

It’s a move that makes more sense — and has historically enjoyed more popular support — in expensive, densely populated eastern Massachusetts communities like Boston, Cambridge and Brookline than in rural western communities. of the state and the suburban towns in its center. But if the matter is debated in the Legislative Assembly, its fate will be decided by the representatives of Boston and Belchertown. And the decision will not be quick.

Wu acknowledged the “unpredictable” timing in the Legislative Assembly, but said, “the goal is that we should act at the urgency of our community, rather than at the usual government pace.”


Emma Platoff can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.