Thursday, 4:30 PM
Romney leaves state on different footing
By Scott Helman, Globe Staff
Jobs are up slightly, and unemployment is down. More high-school students are passing the MCAS, but more are dropping out, too. Business leaders are more bullish, and crime is down statewide. But homicides in Boston are up sharply, and the tax burden is heavier for many across the commonwealth.
This is how the Massachusetts that Mitt Romney left behind Wednesday compares to the Massachusetts that he inherited four years ago.
To some, Romney has served honorably in the tradition of Republican governors before him, holding the line on taxes and providing a counterweight to the Democratic Legislature.
To others, he arrived on Beacon Hill with promise, but he became too consumed by political ambition to devote sufficient attention to his day job.
As he embarks on a run for the White House, Romneyís one term here will be scrutinized as never before. What he accomplished -- and what he didnít -- promises to loom large over the next two years as his record is compared against likely presidential rivals such as Senator John McCain of Arizona and former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York.
"Iím not naive enough to think that people obviously [donít] have some disappointment and think that heís lost a little bit of focus," said the House minority leader, Bradley H. Jones Jr., a North Reading Republican who was a Romney ally in the Legislature.
"My hope is," he added, "that, like many things in life, when thereís a little bit of distance, people will take a broader view."
By most accounts, Romneyís signal accomplishment was a historic healthcare bill he signed last year that aims to extend insurance to almost all Massachusetts residents. Though legislative leaders were instrumental, Romney and his administration are given -- and claim -- credit for a plan being hailed as a potential national model.
But if the law was a cornerstone of Romneyís tenure, it also highlighted two criticisms that dogged him in the Corner Office.
First, his involvement with healthcare, critics say, was an exception to four years of mostly distant relations with the Legislature. And Romneyís veto of a central part of the bill -- a fee on certain employers who do not provide coverage -- drew charges that he was more interested in appealing to Republican primary voters than in ensuring that the plan worked financially.
Romney quickly integrated the healthcare plan into his presidential pitch, but when he talks on the stump about his record in Massachusetts, his main message is often how he steered the state through a fiscal crisis in his first year in office.
Through trimming state government, raising fees on certain services, and ending corporate tax loopholes, Romney closed a budget gap of roughly $1.7 billion. He boasts that he did so without raising taxes, but some tax specialists and other observers have argued that Romney effectively raised taxes by boosting the fees and eking more money out of corporations.
Romney has declined repeated requests by The Boston Globe for an interview. His communications director, Eric Fehrnstrom, said Wednesday that Massachusetts is better off today than it was four years ago "by almost every objective measurement."
"He balanced the budget, got the economy back on track, and achieved what no other state in the nation has been able to figure out, and thatís how to get health insurance to all our citizens without raising taxes and without a government takeover," Fehrnstrom said, noting that Romney did not accept a salary while in office. "I think the people of Massachusetts will remember him for his selfless service to the Commonwealth," he said.
On taxes, Romney failed in his efforts to roll back the stateís income tax rate to 5 percent, the level voters called for in a 2000 referendum.
But he won a significant victory in 2005 when he persuaded the Legislature not to impose a retroactive capital gains tax increase on investors.
That, according to Barbara Anderson, a leading antitax activist in Massachusetts, is indicative of one important value of Romney: what he prevented from happening just by being in office.
"People ... know what Romney did," she said. "They donít have any way of knowing what he prevented from happening."
Romney also will be remembered for taking over the Big Dig after a tunnel ceiling collapse in July killed a Boston woman. The tragedy, some say, highlighted the best and worst of Romney: His leadership helped restore public confidence in the project in the immediate aftermath, but Romney eventually resumed his political travels and was forced to concede that his administration made a mistake in continuing to rely on project manager Bechtel Parsons/Brinckerhoff for inspections.
Indeed, Romney has been criticized for making big pronouncements but not always following through.
On "smart growth" -- concentrating dense development near public transit, for example -- his administration initially made it a priority but seemed to lose focus, said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional planning agency.
"We saw a lot of interest in the beginning, and then everything just sort of started to coast," Draisen said.
On education, Romney, over the Legislatureís objections, instituted the Adams Scholarship program, which offers tuition-free scholarships at public colleges to students whose MCAS scores place them in the top 25 percent of students in their district.
He also oversaw continued progress on MCAS, and saw Massachusetts fourth- and eighth-graders score highest in the nation on a benchmark standardized test.
But former Boston schools superintendent Thomas Payzant said that while Romney is right to emphasize education in light of increasing competition from Asia, his administration at times failed to provide sufficient funding so that the stateís cities and towns could keep up.
"Itís not enough to talk about what the problem is. Itís important to begin to take some steps to solve it," Payzant said.
A year ago, when he announced that he would not seek a second term, Romney said he was leaving after what he called a "whirlwind of accomplishment."
Now itís up to primary voters, political opponents, and national media to judge.
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.