By Morgan True and Corey Kane/BU Washington News Service
TAMPA—Massachusetts Republicans say they are at the party’s national convention here to help introduce Mitt Romney to the rest of the country – and that while his business experience and management of the 2002 Winter Olympics are important, they believe his 2003-2006 tenure as governor to be equally significant.
But national Republicans have scarcely mentioned the latter.
In the few references to Romney’s time as governor during the convention’s first day of speeches, Republicans from across the country focused on how Romney balanced the budget, cut taxes, and created jobs during his tenure.
“As governor, he has unleashed a true Republican revolution that has already accomplished so much. It is a success story of fiscal responsibility, controlled government spending, lower taxes, and pro-growth policies,” declared Luce Vela Fortuno, the first lady of Puerto Rico, from the podium at the Tampa Bay Times forum.
Among Massachusetts delegates, state Reps. Kim Ferguson, R-Holden; Stephen Howitt, R-Seekonk; and Donald Wong, R-Saugus all contended that, despite having to govern with a super-majority of Democrats in the Legislature, Romney was able to turn the state’s economy around.
“He was governor, but he ran government as a business,” Wong said in an interview.
“I think the big difference between Romney and Obama is that, as an executive, Mitt didn’t make excuses about the mess he inherited as governor,” added state Rep. Paul Frost, R-Auburn.
To be sure, Romney’s record as a fiscally prudent government executive from 2003 to 2006 was buoyed by a strong national economy. Still, he did turn a deficit into a surplus.
Romney cut state spending by $1.4 billion in his first year, dropping it from $36.3 billion to $34.9 billion. His final fiscal budget in 2006 was $34.8 billion. Revenues climbed every year during his term, from $34 billion in 2003 to $40.8 billion in 2006.
As with most convention speeches, those focusing on tax and spending cuts do not delve into the details of how Romney righted the Bay State’s fiscal ship. To achieve this, he increased fees for services such as court filings and marriage licenses, and closed several tax loopholes to raise state revenues.
Total tax revenues and total fee revenues climbed during Romney’s stewardship. Tax revenues rose every year, from $15.2 billion in 2003 to $18.7 billion in 2006. Fee revenues were $8.6 billion in 2003, rising to $11 billion in 2006.
Democrats and other critics contend that while Romney professed to cut taxes as governor, the overall governmental burden on Massachusetts residents increased. The Tax Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based think-tank, reported that the burden increased from 9.9 percent of an average income in 2003 to 10.2 percent income in 2006. The Tax Foundation reported that, in both years, Massachusetts was above the national average on this front.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s speech to the convention applauded Romney’s record as a job-creating governor, saying Romney “went from the loss of tens of thousands of jobs to the creation of 40,000 new jobs by the time he left office — and he did it in Taxachusetts of all places.”
Kasich’s statement matches figures used by the Romney campaign, which say that the newly anointed presidential candidate added 49,100 jobs in his time as governor. But that figure is potentially misleading when cited without the context of national trends at the time.
In her speech Tuesday night, Ann Romney recapitulated figures from a campaign advertisement crediting her husband with lowering unemployment in Massachusetts to 4.7 percent. Mitt Romney governed between two national recessions, which could help to explain the drop in unemployment.
During his tenure, unemployment did drop from 5.6 percent to 4.6 percent in Massachusetts. But the state’s unemployment rate was slightly lower than the national rate when he took office. When his term was over it was roughly the same, according to the FactCheck.org.
Not surprisingly, none of the national Republicans lauding the Romney record in Massachusetts have mentioned healthcare reform.
Similarities between the Massachusetts law and the Affordable Care Act pushed through by the Obama White House in 2010 — which Romney has promised to seek to repeal if elected—have served to highlight Romney’s transformation from moderate Republican governor to conservative party standard-bearer.
Speaking to the New York Times on the healthcare law in 2006, Mr. Romney said, “People ask me if this is conservative or liberal, and my answer is yes. It’s liberal in the sense that we’re getting our citizens health insurance. It’s conservative in that we’re not getting a government takeover.”
State Sen. Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth, a delegate at this year’s convention who voted for the Massachusetts healthcare reform law, praised Romney for attempting to solve the biggest problem facing the state—the ballooning cost of healthcare.
In an interview, Hedlund said he’s not sure why Romney doesn’t talk about it more – while acknowledging that the former governor gets “twisted in knots” when he does talk about it now.
“What we have now is a little different than what he first proposed,” said Hedlund, noting that the state has added new mandates, and that the cost as well as the size and scope of the program have increased.
Massachusetts House Majority Leader Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, said in a phone interview that GOP rhetoric on Romney’s tax cuts is a distortion of his gubernatorial record. Mariano said that it obscures the increased fee burden Massachusetts citizens face. He estimated that the total tax and fee burden increased by $1,200 per year for the average citizen under Romney.
Mariano also charged that the Republican presidential candidate takes too much credit for balancing the state’s budget — arguing that reforms in Massachusetts occur only with the consent of the Democratic super-majority in the Legislature, and that Romney governed in good economic times.
“Sometimes you get the benefit of an up-cycle in the economy,” said Mariano, who has served in the Legislature since 1991.
Mariano was one of the drafters of the Massachusetts health care reform during Romney’s tenure. He said he is puzzled by the former governor’s effort to downplay the most significant legislation passed under his watch.
“If I was in human resources and saw a gap of four years in your resume, I’d want to know what happened during that time,” Mariano said.