NEWS ITEM: Governor Maura Healey hopes state can get off the hook for $2.5 billion in federal money the Baker administration mistakenly used instead of state funds. Calls error “avoidable.”


To paraphrase the late US Sen. Everett “the Wizard of Ooze” Dirksen: “$2.5 billion here, $2.5 billion there, pretty soon, you’re talking real money.”

Healey wants the US Department of Labor to comp that debt, and she may have caught a break in the timing of this costly blunder. Were Marty Walsh still in there, would he really scramble to bail out a potential future rival from a jam?

But if she can’t negotiate this mess away, it’s a major headache for Beacon Hill and the employers who may wind up on the hook for reimbursement. Which might provide context for Healey’s remark to the Globe that while pandemic era unemployment benefit policies were “incredibly complex,” the $2.5 billion Baker boo-boo “certainly was avoidable.”

Gotcha! Fair play, no doubt, after Baker had his fun last year with the Legislature’s brain freeze on the automatic tax rebate. But while we knew Healey was a basketball sharpshooter – somehow that message slipped out during the campaign and inauguration – it’s the first time we’ve seen her take aim in one of Beacon Hill’s most time-honored pastimes: the blame game.

Michael Dukakis blamed his predecessor, Frank Sargent, for the whopping budget deficit he inherited in 1975. (Justifiably: Sargent “was bored by fiscal and administrative issues,” says an otherwise-flattering account in the New England Journal of Public Policy.) What went around came around during the 1990 elections when both candidates for governor, Bill Weld and John Silber, blamed Dukakis for everything but the Sox getting swept by the A’s in the ALCS.

More recently, governors have seemed more reluctant to trash their predecessors. Deval Patrick kept his contempt for Mitt Romney mostly to himself until Romney ran against President Obama in 2012, five years after leaving office. And Baker refused to say publicly what top aides said privately: they were appalled at the mess of undocumented appointments to state boards and commissions Patrick left behind when he checked out.

Baker won’t be beefing with the Healey administration anytime soon; his congressional supplicant employer, the NCAA, is looking to butter up pols these days, not belittle them. But the unemployment fiasco is a fatwood log on a widening pyre of Baker-era bleep-ups that threaten to singe the new administration, most notably the MBTA hot spots that flare up on a regular basis. Funny how Baker dined out for eight years on Patrick’s dismal MBTA mismanagement after the Snowpocalypse winter of 2015, a nightmare the public never stopped blaming on Deval and company.

It’s the same old cycle – voters break up with pol, start dating new pol who thrives on bad memories of their ex. Hell hath no fury, etc.

It’s understandable, and rarely without justification. Healey’s campaign praise for Baker and her branding as a Baker-style moderate suggest she won’t be going full blame game – for now.

But no one likes having to clean the previous passenger’s mess off their seat in the gubernatorial Uber.

Especially when it was “certainly avoidable.”

Jon Keller has been reporting and commenting on local politics since 1978. A graduate of Brandeis University, he worked in radio as a producer and talk-show host before moving into print journalism at The Tab newspapers and the Boston Phoenix. Freelance credits include the Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Boston Magazine, the New Republic and the Washington Post. Since 1991 his "Keller At Large" commentaries and interviews have been a fixture on Boston TV, first on WLVI-TV and, since 2005, on WBZ-TV. He is a 12-time Emmy Award winner for political reporting and commentary. He began his Massterlist column in March 2020.