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Friday, October 5, 2012

Romney Takes Liberties With Claims About a Bipartisan Past


When Mitt Romney accused President Obama in their debate Wednesday night of refusing to work with Republicans, he held up his own record as the Massachusetts governor as an example of what political cooperation can achieve.

As a Republican governor whose legislature was 87 percent Democrats, he said, “I figured out from Day 1 I had to get along, and I had to work across the aisle to get anything done.” The result, he said, was that “we drove our schools to be No. 1 in the nation. We cut taxes 19 times.”

Mr. Romney and the legislature did at times get along, Massachusetts schools were often top-rated, and some taxes did drop during Mr. Romney's four years as governor, from 2003 through 2006. But a comparison of his claims to the factual record suggests that all three take liberties with the truth.

While the governor and the legislature came together to produce balanced budgets and enact a signature health care reform bill, much of those four years were characterized by conflict and tensions. In the opening months of his tenure, Mr. Romney vetoed a Massachusetts House plan to create new committees and raise staff members' pay, and the legislators rejected his flagship proposal, a nearly 600-page plan to overhaul the state bureaucracy.

Mr. Romney proved to have a taste for vetoes, killing legislative initiatives in his first two years at more than twice the rate of his more popular Republican predecessor, William F. Weld, The Boston Globe reported in 2004. The lawmakers responded in kind by overriding his vetoes at a rapid pace.

By 2004, the second year of his term, Mr. Romney was provoked enough to mount an unprecedented campaign to unseat Democratic legislators, spending $3 million in Republican party money and hiring a nationally known political strategist, Michael Murphy.

The effort failed spectacularly. Republicans lost seats, leaving them with their s mallest legislative delegation since 1867. Democratic legislators were reported at the time to have been deeply angered by the campaign's tactics.

“They had a deteriorating relationship during the first two years,” Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor and expert on state politics at Tufts University, said in an interview. The campaign “was designed to demonstrate that he could make life difficult for them if he chose to do so. It did not endear him to them.”

Mr. Romney quickly initiated a charm offensive, inviting Democratic leaders to dinners at his home for the first time since taking office two years earlier. But the legislators were soon “infuriated,” Mr. Berry said, when Mr. Romney, testing the presidential waters, began traveling outside the state and casting brickbats at Massachusetts's traditionally liberal values before crowds of potential supporters.

On education, Mr. Romney was factually correct in stating that Massachusetts students were ranked first in the nation during his tenure. Massachusetts students in grades four and eight took top honors or tied for first in reading and mathematics on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal Department of Education test often called the nation's report card.

However, educators largely agree that the state's rise to first place was a result of a wholesale reform of state schools enacted 10 years earlier under Governor Weld. The reforms, carried out over eight years, doubled state spending on schools and brought standards and accountability to both administrators and students.

“Governor Romney does not get to take the credit for achieving that No. 1 ranking,” said Mike Gilbert, the field director for the nonprofit Massachusetts Association of School Committees, “but it did happen while he was in office.”

Under Mr. Romney, neither the governor nor the legislature enjoyed notable successes in education, although Mr. Romney is credited with battling successfully against efforts to dismantle some of the 1993 reforms.

Mr. Romney and the legislature cut deeply into state grants to local governments in 2003 amid a state budget crisis, forcing many school districts to raise property taxes. In 2006, Mr Romney vetoed a bill passed unanimously by the legislature that established standards for preschool education and set long-term plans to make it universal. He said the programs would cost too much at a time of budget austerity.

Mr. Romney's claim that he was responsible for 19 separate tax cuts is also technically accurate. But here, too, the complete story paints a very different picture.

Perhaps the most substantial tax reduction occurred in 2005, when Mr. Romney's administration wrote legislation refunding $250 million in capital gains taxes to 145,000 investors. But the legislation carried out a court ruling finding that the taxes had been illegally withheld in 2002; the court gave the state the option of refunding the taxes or rewriting the law to correct the illegality.

Mr Romney proposed the latter, and the legislature agreed.

Of the remaining 18 tax cuts, many were proposed by the legislature, not Mr. Romney, and others were routine extensions of existing tax reductions that were due to expire. One was a change in the Massachusetts tax code to make it conform to changes in the federal code. Two were one-day sales-tax holidays.

Mr. Romney's critics note that his administration was also responsible for revenue-raising measures which, under that loose definition, might well be called tax increases. In his first year, Mr. Romney closed business tax loopholes and increased fees on an array of services, from marriage licenses to home purchases.

“Our numbers on revenue are that he raised about $750 million annually - $375 million from fees and $375 million from corporate taxes,” said Michael Widmer, president of the nonpartisan Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

In 2004, Mr. Romney signed legislation allowing local officials to collect an additional $100 million in commercial property taxes from businesses.