A conversation with Massachusetts’s second-in-command.
Karyn Polito has served as the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts since 2015 and has assumed an unusually active role for her position. Her goal is to strengthen the partnership between cities and towns and the Commonwealth. This mission brings her to Nantucket this July, where she has acquired an intimate knowledge of the challenges facing the island. Prior to her visit, N Magazine spoke with Lieutenant Governor Polito to discuss the many matters facing Nantucket.
N MAGAZINE: What’s your view of Nantucket?
LT. GOVERNOR POLITO: As much as people visit it from all over the world because of its beauty and special coastline, Nantucket is home to individuals and families, and I think about the island in that light. I want it to be a good community in terms of its schools, jobs, housing, healthcare, and wellness for the residents who live on Nantucket year-round.
N MAGAZINE: As ideal as Nantucket looks from a distance, it suffers from many of the same problems as the rest of the state. For instance, opiate abuse has become more pervasive and has been a big problem on Nantucket for a long time. What has your administration been doing on this front?
LT. GOVERNOR POLITO: We will continue our aggressive efforts to combat opiate addiction. We were the first state in the country to pass a law limiting a third-time opiate prescription to seven days. And we have increased our substance abuse prevention and treatment by 50 percent in the state budget, giving more funding for prevention education and long-term treatment to help those who are addicted get on a path to wellness. We have also engaged the medical community and requiring doctors to log in every script that they write for an opiate into a monitoring program, which is well used. And we require doctors, nurses, physicians’ assistants, dental patients to all understand in their court competencies for implication, how to use, and prescribe pain medicine. We are seeing a positive impact of these efforts, with heroin and opiate related deaths declining. However, we are seeing a rapid increase of deaths associated with fentanyl, and, therefore, we are ramping up our law enforcement efforts to go after the bad actors in terms of trafficking fentanyl, which is killing too many people in our commonwealth.
N MAGAZINE: What effect do you think the new marijuana legislation has relative to the possible worsening of the opiate and drug problem on the island?
LT. GOVERNOR POLITO: We will honor the wishes of the voters and implement the essence of the ballot question that was passed in November. However, we are mindful that regulatory oversight will be needed in order to have consumers understand what they actually are consuming when they either grow or purchase edibles in Massachusetts. We have a lot of work to do relative to the government structure and the regulatory system for safeguarding marijuana as a product in Massachusetts. Having said that, it is a drug and if abused can be harmful to people’s wellness. Relative to the opiate and heroin addiction crisis in our commonwealth, most heroin addicts started with marijuana.
N MAGAZINE: Switching the focus to the local economy in Nantucket, a lot of the hospitality businesses and restaurants have found themselves in a real quandary because of their inability to get staff who were previously approved and cleared through the H2B and J-1 visa programs. What is your position on these visa programs and their role in the service economy in tourist dependent places like Nantucket?
LT. GOVERNOR POLITO: We are a welcoming place in Massachusetts by virtue of our universities and our health care system. Our businesses rely on many talented individuals that come from other places in the world to do research here, to work, to be part of the tourism economy or even agriculture. The visa system is a tool that we need to rely on in order to legally bring this talent to our workforce. Our administration supports the visa program and will continue to inform the federal officials of its need here in the commonwealth, so that we can continue to thrive as an economy in all parts of Massachusetts including the islands.
N MAGAZINE: Does this viewpoint put you at odds with the White House?
LT. GOVERNOR POLITO: I know that this is a legal process for bringing people into the country for purposes of filling jobs that are otherwise not filled. This has been a system in place for many years and needs to function with clarity and certainty in order to bring talent legally into Massachusetts. So I think the idea is to have it work so that employers can rely on it and not have to question year to year whether it is going to be available as a tool to populate their places of employment.
N MAGAZINE: Moving on to larger economic issues of the state, we are starting to see more and more evidence that technology is creating both opportunity and challenges. Can you talk about your personal interest in STEM education and internships and how that could put Massachusetts in a leadership position as we have been in many educational areas up to this point?
LT. GOVERNOR POLITO: In order to create the most robust pipeline of talent to measure up with our innovation economy, we need people to have skills related to science, technology, engineering, math, and even construction to be competitive. According to a recent trends forecast, we will need close to twelve thousand additional positions in the biopharmaceutical industry alone to be filled by 2022. In order to meet goals like that we need to have both curriculum in our K–12 public education match these growing needs in our economy, as well as connecting students to the workplace through paid high school internships and work experiences where they can better understand the subject matters in the STEM field. We are also putting in about $45 million worth of high-end equipment like 3D printers and CNC machines directly into the classroom so that students are actually learning how to program and use this kind of equipment in high school, which can then be transitioned into the workplace directly or after further education go into the workforce.
N MAGAZINE: How concerned are you about threats to NIH funding, of which Massachusetts gets a disproportionate share? Does this kind of discussion keep you up at night?
LT. GOVERNOR POLITO: Well we are very, very concerned about the threat to federal research funding. In fact, we have a strategy group forming with industry leaders and our congressional delegation to fight for each and every one of those dollars that are needed to continue to fuel industry in Massachusetts. For instance, seventeen of the world’s top biopharmaceutical companies have a presence in Massachusetts, and we have ten of the largest medical device companies here. In order for us to continue to be a player in life sciences we need to continue to be leaders in research and development.
N MAGAZINE: What are you looking forward to most with your upcoming trip to Nantucket?
LT. GOVERNOR POLITO: I am looking forward to meeting with municipal officials to discuss their community compact that they signed with our administration in November 2016. They signed a best practices compact with our administration focused on achieving stronger fiscal policies, including determining reserve levels, capital financing, and use of free cash. I’m told that the Board of Selectmen adopted these policies in November 2016. They joined 284 other communities out of our 351 that are embedding best practices like this into local governance. When I meet with them in July, I will learn about how they are looking to incorporate more best practices and how they deliver services to strengthen their community. What makes a strong community are good schools, jobs, and opportunities for people year-round, which would require a housing strategy to go along with that, and a good, healthy and safe community, which will require us to assist the people of Nantucket on issues like opiate addiction. I’m looking forward to our municipal visit in July, where we can take the next steps forward to strengthen their level of governance to provide even stronger service to the residents.