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Romney's use of veto breaks with routine

Governor Mitt Romney has wielded his veto pen more than twice as often as his Republican predecessors, angering lawmakers by striking down two dozen bills that were tailored to specific constituents or towns but would have had little or no effect on the state's bottom line.

A Globe tally shows that Romney has vetoed 63 bills since becoming governor two years ago, including 26 local measures.

Romney also leads recent governors in the number of times the Legislature has overridden his vetoes: nine.

Like his predecessors, Romney vetoed some bills after high-profile disputes with the Legislature, including a controversial plan to raise the pay of certain lawmakers that was proposed by Thomas M. Finneran, then House speaker. But Romney's relatively frequent rejection of local bills -- nearly all of them minor measures that would have cost little, but would have helped him curry favor with lawmakers -- illustrates a new scrutiny and approach he has brought to the governor's office.

Among the vetoed measures: a special election to fill a vacancy on the Wilmington Board of Selectmen; a higher disability pension for a Fall River police officer who had to retire after slipping on ice; and the closure of a tiny sliver of a North Andover street so one resident could get the land he needed to qualify as a farm owner. According to Romney, there was no compelling reason to hold the special election, the second bill would have set a bad precedent, and the third measure would not have accomplished its purpose.

Romney's decisions color the atmosphere as he heads into a new legislative session and tries to push through initiatives, such as an ambitious healthcare expansion, to build his resume for a possible presidential run.

''People pay me to do something, not to sit there and let things slide across my desk without careful consideration," Romney said in an interview last week.

Like Romney, recent Republican governors William F. Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Jane Swift had to contend with overwhelming Democratic majorities on Beacon Hill. But two of those governors, Cellucci and Swift, were former lawmakers, and all three believed they had to forge relationships with Democratic legislators to get anything done. Signing local bills and avoiding unnecessary fights with the Legislature were part of that strategy.

Romney ''feels that government is broken, and I think that puts him in a disposition that he has to stand strong, or else he is not doing the job he was elected for," said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. ''The real issue is learning to compromise with Democrats he doesn't like very much. . . . the test is to come."

Weld vetoed 31 bills in 1995 and 1996, the first time the Legislature met in a two-year session. He and Cellucci rejected only 13 in 1997 and 1998, and Cellucci rejected only nine during the next session. Swift lodged seven vetoes during her two years in office.

''Every governor has his or her own style," Cellucci said last week.. ''I think Governor Romney is doing quite a good job. He's holding the line on taxes; the economy is improving here. Of course, I came out of the Legislature, so I probably got along pretty well with those guys that I served with for many years," he added.

The veto totals don't include individual ''line-item vetoes," specific expenditures the governors excised from state budgets and other spending bills. Last summer, Romney vetoed 222 individual items, worth a total of $108.5 million, from the roughly $24.5 billion budget for the current fiscal year. The Legislature subsequently overturned 117 vetoes, restoring $96 million of that spending. The previous year, he vetoed about $200 million.

In addition to the local bills, Romney vetoed several high-profile measures, including the legislative pay raise pushed by Finneran and a bill establishing a special election to fill US Senate vacancies. The Legislature overruled the governor on both. Romney also vetoed a moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools that was included in the budget. Lawmakers handed him a major victory by declining to override that veto.

The relationship between Romney and the Legislature hasn't been entirely antagonistic. Together, the governor and lawmakers balanced the budget without a tax hike, relaunched the state's stalled school building program, and restructured the state's transportation agencies.

But Romney's relatively high veto rate fits with his overall philosophy: He ran for the corner office vowing to shatter the status quo on Beacon Hill. He railed against patronage and waste, and warned that his Democratic opponent, Shannon O'Brien, would join with Democratic leaders in the Legislature to block change.

That approach yielded victory, but it also put him in an uncomfortable position once he arrived at the State House. The former venture capitalist is not a back-slapper, and he has so far failed to build rapport with legislators or their leaders.

On the contrary, he has developed a reputation for aloofness. House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi has been getting huge laughs with his quip that he got frostbite from the hug he and Romney shared last fall when DiMasi replaced Finneran.

''I think he has been following bad advice; the Legislature has not been the enemy," said Representative Peter J. Larkin, a Pittsfield Democrat who was one of Finneran's top lieutenants. ''We have a history of working with Republican governors."

Romney may be shifting his strategy. This month, he sought to salve the wounds of an especially bruising election season by hosting a series of private dinners for legislative leaders at his Belmont home and a North End restaurant.

''It's always been my desire to have a good relationship with members of the Legislature," he said. ''. . . I really think that this Legislature and our administration are going to get a lot done again this year."

Globe correspondent Elise Castelli contributed to this report.

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