With the informal close of the legislative session today, the Massachusetts Legislature finds itself playing a familiar election-year role as punching bag for the Republican gubernatorial candidate. But this season, Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, the GOP nominee, may have a tougher case to make than her predecessors did.
The state's fiscal health has improved during the last legislative session, and this spring, with the help of Governor Mitt Romney, lawmakers passed a historic initiative to expand healthcare. In his campaign four years ago, Romney effectively cast his Democratic opponent, Shannon O'Brien, as one of the ``Gang of Three" powerful State House Democrats, warning their one-party rule was dangerous for Massachusetts. Democrats say that strategy no longer works.
``The Gang of Three argument doesn't hold water anymore," said state Representative Michael E. Festa, a Democrat from Melrose. ``The real challenge is for Healey to say with a straight face that the Democrats are the problem."
Republicans, however, insist that Healey has plenty of material to work with. The Democratic-run Legislature has refused to pass an immediate income tax rollback, sidelined Romney's effort to deregulate the auto insurance industry, and stopped the governor's attempts to cut spending, which is slated to rise by about 8 percent next year.
``I think voters understand how much worse it would be absent a fiscally conservative Republican governor," said Rob Gray, a strategist for the Healey campaign. ``As bad as spending and proposed tax increases are now, if there were a Democrat in the corner office, there would be many more tax and spending increases proposed."
Healey has already begun hitting the Legislature hard. She has castigated lawmakers for considering a bill to give in-state tuition rates to children of illegal immigrants. More recently, she has blasted lawmakers for stalling on legislation to toughen sex offender laws.
But lawmakers have also worked alongside the Romney-Healey administration on the healthcare bill, antigang legislation, and -- after considerable pressure from Healey and the public -- Melanie's bill, which toughens penalties on drunken driving.
Taxes and spending have long been the winning issues for Republicans in Massachusetts, who in the last four elections have successfully tagged the Democratic Legislature as a group of incorrigible tax-and-spenders who need the supervision of a Republican governor. Voters have clearly responded -- the last time a Democrat won the governor's race was 20 years ago.
Healey has embraced that formula. In her first television ad, a narrator intones, ``The Legislature wastes more and more." Her aides say that by insisting on large spending increases in 2007 and by failing to pass an income tax rollback, the Legislature has played into her hands.
``They say we can't afford a tax rollback, yet they pass a budget that increases spending by 8 percent," said Tim O'Brien, Healey's campaign manager. ``These are all themes that our side has been running on for 16 years, and they basically gave us ammunition to do it again." Democrats counter that what the public wants now, several years after the state's fiscal crisis required deep spending cuts, is more state investment in education and long-delayed community projects. This year's budget, they say, does precisely that.
``I have heard from, I think, two constituents about the income tax rollback in this past year and I have heard from hundreds who have been asking for restorations of the programs that have been cut," said Representative J. James Marzilli Jr., a Democrat from Arlington.
House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi said that Healey, the Romney administration's liaison with local communities, knows that it is ``disingenuous to say we're not rolling back taxes -- we're making investments in cities and towns so that property taxes will not rise."
With few Republican allies in the Legislature, the Romney administration has mostly failed to prevent the Legislature from spending what it wants. Lawmakers have overridden the vast majority of Romney's budget vetoes, and they expect to finish the job today.
Barbara Anderson, executive director of the Citizens for Limited Taxation, argues that the diminished numbers of Republicans in the Legislature means voters have an even greater need for a conservative voice in the bully pulpit. On issues such as granting in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants, Anderson said, Healey spoke out and made a difference in the debate.
``I think we all understand we're not going to get good government in Massachusetts," she said. ``But we can at least prevent worse things from happening as long as we have a governor who can tell us what's going on and put up a fight."
Polls suggest voters are disillusioned with the Legislature. A State House News survey this month found that more than two-thirds of the 410 respondents rated the Legislature's performance as below average or poor.
On the other hand, as former Democratic senator Warren Tolman noted, past Republican candidates for governor have had well-known, controversial Democratic leaders to vilify. In 1990, Republican nominee William F. Weld tied his Democratic opponent, John R. Silber, to then-Senate President William M. Bulger, whom Weld depicted as corrupt. In 2002, House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran was the most recognizable member of the ``Gang of Three."
This year, according to a Mass Insight poll conducted in April, the legislative leaders seem to have barely registered with voters. The survey found that just 30 percent of voters had an opinion of DiMasi and that only 34 percent knew enough about Senate President Robert E. Travaglini to rate the job he was doing.
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at email@example.com. Russell Nichols of the Globe staff contributed.