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Romney renews drive to overhaul Pike

Seeks to curb powers of authority chairman

Governor Mitt Romney is reviving his campaign to dilute the powers of Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chairman Matthew Amorello, but this time Amorello's legislative allies are ready to make changes in light of the chairman's recent missteps.

 

Romney wants to overhaul the Turnpike Authority, reduce its functions, and diminish Amorello's clout. The governor's aides say he plans to include the reorganization in the budget proposal he will present to the House next month.

The administration's proposal was designed to reap $190 million in one-time savings and to generate $23 million a year, offering badly needed revenue to leaders in the Legislature who are once again facing a major budget deficit. Lawmakers rebuffed a similar proposal from Romney earlier this year, but now Amorello has weathered a year of controversy that was capped off by Amorello's plans to throw a lavish party, with a Boston Pops performance, to celebrate the opening of the last significant section of the Big Dig. Amorello was forced to call off the event late last week, but some of his one-time allies at the highest levels of the legislative leadership are quietly distancing themselves from the Turnpike Authority chairman, who has a $205,000-a-year contract until his term expires in 2007.

Amorello, a former state senator who draws his political strength from his former colleagues, declined to comment.

But those former colleagues were not rushing to his defense this week. One Democratic senator, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Amorello was quickly becoming "the new Billy Bulger," referring to the former University of Massachusetts president whom Romney targeted as a symbol of political cronyism. Bulger, facing pressures from Romney and others, resigned last summer.

"I don't think last week was a good week for Matt Amorello," said state Senator Steven A. Baddour, a Democrat from Methuen and Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation. "But we have moved on. The event was canceled, and we will be looking at the merits of the proposals."

The Senate's assistant majority leader, Robert A. Havern, a Democrat from Arlington, was more blunt, although he stopped short of naming Amorello. "There's no more sacred cows," Havern said. "There's no money, and this is a great opportunity to make transportation work for the public, and that means some big shake-ups."

Baddour and other Senate leaders are developing plans for sweeping changes in the state's bureaucracy that one top lieutenant to Senate President Robert E. Travaglini said will centralize control of transportation authorities and agencies in the governor's hands. Havern's comments are relevant because his boss, Travaglini, has in the past been a strong defender of Amorello. One of the Senate president's closest advisers as well as friend is James A. Aloisi Jr., a Boston lawyer who has a lucrative bond practice with the Turnpike Authority and is a close ally of Amorello.

Although the details are still being worked out, the main feature of Romney's original turnpike plan, the merger of the Turnpike Authority with the state Highway Department, remains the centerpiece. The reorganization plan would put Amorello under the direct control of the governor, through the secretary of transportation.

Still under discussion is whether to add, as the original proposal did, as many as four gubernatorial appointments to the five-member board, giving Romney a dominating role and sharply diminishing Amorello's ability to control what is left of the agency. Amorello would still oversee the Big Dig, which is scheduled to be completed in just over a year.

In an interview with the Globe this week, Romney confirmed he would offer a merger of the two agencies, but keep Amorello on the job at least until his contract expires.

"I think the federal government expects federal dollars to flow to transportation agencies that are accountable to elected officials," Romney said.

He also criticized Amorello's canceled Big Dig party, calling it a "symbol of excess."

"I was delighted that that was shut down," the governor said. "At some point, you say enough already, enough self-congratulations and let's get the job done and stop worrying about the photo shots and cutting the ribbons."

The Big Dig party, even though most of the expenses were to be picked up by Citizens Bank, a turnpike contractor, drew sharp criticism from Romney, House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, and Senate Ways and Means chairwoman Therese M. Murray, and others. It also generated considerable ridicule in the media.

"This underscores the need for the accountability that the governor's plan would provide," said Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's director of communications, referring to the canceled celebration.

"We believe the best way to do that is to make the authority and its chairman answer directly to the governor," he said.

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