By Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE -- Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker on Wednesday called the proposed expansion of the bottle redemption law a "money grab" by the state, and said the ongoing trial of former top probation officials on charges of bribery and racketeering exposes the risks of one-party rule on Beacon Hill.

Baker, the frontrunner to win the Republican nomination in September, paid a visit to the State House press corps on Wednesday after visiting the Brooke Charter School in Boston's Roslindale neighborhood.

Ostensibly hoping to discuss his support for legislation lifting the cap on charter school enrollment, Baker held forth on everything from the Supreme Court's recent decision on employer-mandated health coverage of contraception to Attorney General Martha Coakley's recent swipe at the governor's management.

Baker, who is running against the Tea Party's Mark Fisher, has been under fire from conservative elements of the Republican base for early support of Speaker Robert DeLeo's gun control bill. Though the bill being debated in the House on Wednesday underwent significant revisions, Baker said it still appears to touch on his priorities and he is not worried about angering gun owners.

>>> For video of Baker's comments, go to: http://www.statehousenews.com/video/14-07-09baker/ <<<

"My big three all along has been some connection between the mental health system and the background check system, more serious penalties for crimes committed with a gun and a real focus on illegal trafficking, which is a huge problem across the Commonwealth from one end to the other. The press reports I have read indicate there are components of all three of those in the bill, but I would like to read the bill before I render a final opinion," Baker said.

Asked about alienating a fragment of his base, Baker said, "My support is pretty broad-based and I think will continue to be. I'm not worried about that."

Targeted by Democrats in 2010 for his role in financing the Big Dig, Baker also said he was not worried about the indictment of former Big Dig chief James Kerasiotes on federal tax evasion charges drawing the issue back into the news.

"If people want to talk about stuff that happened in the last century, so be it. I think it's just an indication they don't have anything to say about where we stand today or how we're best suited to move forward as a Commonwealth," Baker said.

DeLeo issued a forceful rebuttal on Wednesday to allegations being made in federal court by prosecutors that he was engaged in a scheme to trade legislative favors for jobs in the probation department that he could use to win votes for his bid to become speaker.

While DeLeo hasn't been charged and Baker said he can't speak to the details of the case against probation officials, he said he has taken a broader message from the trial that more Republicans are needed on Beacon Hill.

"If you just follow these reports, it's pretty clear that a bunch of people got jobs that they probably weren't qualified for. In fact they definitely weren't qualified for, and I think it's just a classic example of why you shouldn't have one-party government. One-party rule on Beacon Hill leads to this sort of insider activity and you don't have the public accountability and checks and balances that makes government work."

Baker, who along with his running mate Karyn Polito supported the state's 2007 abortion clinic buffer zone law, said he believes officials are right to pursue a "fix" after the Supreme Court voided the law on First Amendment grounds, and said if he were governor he would gather the opposing sides for a discussion about how to proceed.

On the Supreme Court's recent Hobby Lobby decision finding that some companies to object on religious grounds to paying for contraception coverage of employees, Baker said, "The good news is Massachusetts won't be affected by the Hobby Lobby decision because Hobby Lobby doesn't change any of the state laws we have here, which I think is great."

Baker declined to offer his opinion on the decision more broadly. "It doesn't matter. What I care about is Massachusetts, and for Massachusetts it doesn't change a thing," he said, arguing that the employer mandate in Massachusetts works.

The Swampscott Republican has been vocal about his support for a ballot question that seeks to decouple future increases in the gas tax from inflation, but on Wednesday he said he would oppose another ballot question to expand the state's bottle redemption law to include water and sports drinks. 

Citing his support for curbside recycling programs, Baker said, "I view the bottle bill expansion as mostly a money grab by the state and I think there are far better and less expensive ways for us to continue to recycle and to be effective."

While Gov. Deval Patrick has repeatedly pushed in budget proposals to expand the bottle bill, House Democratic leaders have rejected the idea and the ballot question is being pushed by environmental advocates.

On the issue of charter schools, Baker urged lawmakers to come together before the session ends to lift the cap on enrollment in charter schools. A bill authorizing a limited increase in a few communities has already cleared the House.

"I view this one as sort of a gut check time for all my opponents and for the Legislature," Baker said, reflecting on the stories parents shared with him at the Brooke Charter School. "This is an opportunity for them to do what's right for the kids in cities in Massachusetts and to give them the type of proven options that have demonstrated they can make a real difference. When you talk to these moms there's an urgency that borders on desperation in their voices."

Baker said he was "dismayed" by a recent vote of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to change the formula used to determine which schools are the lowest performing, and thereby eligible for state supports and more charter school seats. The board voted to count student improvement in overall scores, but Baker said many urban centers will be disqualified based on marginal improvement in student performance.

Baker also declined to take sides between Gov. Deval Patrick, who he ran against in 2010, and Coakley, who he is running against now, after Coakley said this week that the drug lab evidence tampering scandal and the New England Compounding Pharmacy debacle would not have happened on her watch. Patrick dismissed the criticism as something "foolish" candidates say on the trail.

"One of the great things about hindsight is it's always 20/20," Baker said, before steering the conversation to his position that Patrick and Coakley both erred in fighting a lawsuit filed against the Department of Children and Families by a child welfare group in Baltimore that raised red flags about the agency before the disappearance and death of Jeremiah Oliver on DCF's watch.