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Romney pitches aid for colleges

Plan would offer $400 million

Before the books close on the 2005 fiscal year, Governor Mitt Romney yesterday proposed handing out hundreds of millions from a projected surplus to the state's higher education system, with money earmarked for projects such as construction of a nanotechnology center at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and repair of the foundation at UMass-Boston.

The announcement came just days after Romney's return from a trip to Iowa, the gateway state for the presidential nomination, fueling charges from Democrats that the oft-mentioned potential 2008 candidate was seeking to divert attention from his national ambitions.

''The timing is certainly suspect," said Jane Lane, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Democratic Party. ''It's quite obvious that this is being done for political purposes because he's making this grand announcement now, making proposals for desperately needed improvements in higher education, proposals that have been put forward by Democrats for the past two years."

The governor's aides dismissed the 2008 linkage as ''silly."

Romney was among more than 30 governors in Iowa last weekend to attend the annual summer meeting of the National Governors Association, where presidential politics was as much a topic of discussion as policy affecting the states. Romney is one of at least a half-dozen state executives from both parties mentioned as possible White House candidates.

Romney's proposal -- announced before students and faculty at UMass-Boston and later at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester -- would send an additional $400 million to university campuses and $100 million to cities and towns for road and bridge repair.

The funding could be on its way as soon as this fall. But first, the proposal must receive legislative approval. Romney called the proposed investment the largest in higher education in Massachusetts history.

Yesterday, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Robert A. DeLeo, said, ''The committee has yet to see the governor's full proposal. When we do, we will be evaluating it in the context of the many capital projects and other matters, such as replenishing the stabilization fund, which need to be addressed."

Eric Kriss, secretary of administration and finance, said the governor decided against putting the surplus funds into a stabilization fund, also known as a rainy day fund, because it has been built up in recent years.

''We think this is the right time in the cycle to do this because we already have a lot of money in the rainy day fund," Kriss said.

Romney is expected to file the legislation this week, though the exact amount of the state's surplus funds will not be known for a few more weeks, when fiscal year 2005 books are closed. The state's projected surplus is at least $500 million.

At the UMass campuses, as at hundreds of colleges across the country, the bill for decades of delayed maintenance is coming due. Public colleges and universities built in the 1960s and 1970s are in need of repairs that have been delayed by declines in state funding.

To underscore the dire need for the money, state education officials led Romney yesterday on a tour of the UMass-Boston parking garage, which serves as the foundation of five campus buildings and has been deteriorating since 1989. With the media in tow, the governor and state officials tramped through the dimly lit structure, eyeballing a ceiling dotted with hanging wires and large areas cordoned off with bright-orange tape warning of dangerous construction areas.

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