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Romney touts his Massachusetts record as fiscal hawk

Romney says that as governor he guided the state out of a financial crisis by cutting spending despite opposition from Democratic lawmakers. A look at his record reveals a more complicated picture.

June 09, 2012|By Michael Finnegan, Los Angeles Times

Romney heeded the advice of a top campaign advisor, Beth Myers, who told him in an email that she saw no viable alternative to a final round of spending cuts. "The politics of leaving an unbalanced budget for Patrick to fix aren't good," she told Romney in an email. (Democrat Deval Patrick was elected as Romney's successor.)

Just before Thanksgiving, plans for Romney cuts targeting the homeless, mentally ill, deaf, autistic and others led to a blast of bad publicity. Fearing it could get worse, Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's communications director, asked the governor's budget team whether the Goodwill hall where Romney planned to serve turkey to the needy might be facing cuts.

"The safer bet is to have the Gov serve meals in NH," Romney's budget director, Thomas Trimarco, responded to Fehrnstrom in an email obtained by The Times. Romney spends some holidays at a family vacation home in New Hampshire.

By then, Romney had long established austerity as his default position. He had blocked retroactive raises for state university employees, resisted extensions of unemployment benefits and refused to sign a measure to sweeten the pensions of school nurses.

"While it is important to acknowledge nurses' contributions in the lives of our children," he wrote in a letter to the Legislature, "it is equally important that we not pass along new unfunded financial liabilities to those same children when they become taxpayers."

Romney's appetite for fiscal restraint had limits. He signed bills increasing pay and death benefits for National Guard members deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. And his landmark healthcare law, which extended insurance coverage to all Massachusetts residents, costs the state tens of millions of dollars a year.

Romney also upset business leaders by agreeing to increase corporate taxes by $375 million a year. His justification was that companies had been exploiting obscure loopholes that needed to be closed. Corporate software that was downloaded from the Internet, for example, would no longer be exempt from the sales tax that applied to identical software when purchased in disc format.

Romney's $375 million in fee hikes were broader: The state raised the cost of elevator inspections, boat registrations, gun licenses and ice skating at public rinks. Fines for speeding tickets went up. A new fee was imposed on law school graduates for taking the bar exam. The cost of a marriage license jumped from $4 to $50.

A tax on gasoline, which the state called a fee, rose from half a cent to 2.5 cents per gallon.

All of the hikes were justified, Romney said, because many state fees had not gone up in decades, and they applied only to users of specific services.

As for Romney's tax cuts, budget watchdogs in Massachusetts have dismissed them as marginal. They included property tax exemptions for disabled veterans, a tax deduction for fire sprinkler installations, a tax break on renovations of historic buildings and a weekend reprieve from the state's 5% sales tax.

David Tuerck, director of Suffolk University's Beacon Hill Institute, a conservative think tank, called the tax breaks "fluff."

"This is all smoke and mirrors," he said.

Still, Brian Lees, a former Republican minority leader in the state Senate, said Democrats would have raised taxes more if Romney hadn't been applying public pressure on them to be more frugal. (Four months before Romney was elected governor, the Legislature had approved $1.2 billion in tax hikes to help weather the fiscal crisis.)

"He used the bully pulpit of the governor's office very, very effectively," Lees said.

Kriss, who was Massachusetts budget chief under Romney from 2003 to 2005, said Romney had shown "excellent conservative fiscal management." He acknowledged that state spending outpaced inflation under Romney, but attributed that largely to costs rising more rapidly in healthcare — a large share of the budget — than in other sectors.

He also objected to conservative groups' description of tax loophole closings as tax hikes, saying Romney needed to make sure no one was getting a free ride at a time of fiscal crisis. Romney deserves credit, Kriss said, for avoiding across-the-board tax hikes.

But Michael J. Widmer, president of the nonpartisan Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said Romney was presenting "a decidedly incomplete and one-sided picture of what actually happened."

"There's a big gap," he said, "between the record and the rhetoric."

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