Governor Mitt Romney said yesterday that he has yet to decide whether he favors a legislative proposal to assess a charge on companies that do not provide health insurance to their employees, but he suggested a reason he might support it.
The Republican governor, speaking with reporters after a breakfast speech to a business group, said the state already charges businesses that cover their employees a fee of $62 per worker to fund the ''free care pool" for indigent care.
For that reason, the proposed $295-per-worker assessment, which would be charged to companies that do not provide insurance, could be viewed as an alteration of a targeted, existing fee, rather than a new tax.
Since taking office in 2003, Romney has insisted he will not support any new tax, although he has supported an array of increases in fees and fines that he argues are targeted. He is especially reluctant to break his campaign pledge as he considers a run for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
''I'm going to see how this is characterized as it's related to use by employees of the free care pool -- is it instead something that looks like a broad-based fee? -- and I think how I will react to it will depend in part on how it's applied and to whom," the governor said after a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
Romney said that the policy outline announced 10 days ago by House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi and Senate President Robert Travaglini was ''90-to-95 percent" of what was in the bill he filed nearly a year ago.
The governor also said ''clearly I'm anxious" to reach a settlement, since the state stands to lose a portion of $385 million in federal support for indigent care if a plan is not in place by July 1.
At the same time, the governor proclaimed himself largely an outsider to the final negotiations underway in a House-Senate conference committee. He said he will not decide on whether he supports the proposed assessment until he sees the legislative language, even though the Chamber leadership said it backed the plan.
Spokeswomen for both DiMasi and Travaglini separately insisted that negotiations are progressing, even though the committee has not produced a plan more than a week after a joint announcement of an agreement in principle.
One of the conference committee's co-chairs, Democratic Senator Therese Murray of Plymouth, is scheduled to leave for Ireland tomorrow, potentially delaying an agreement.
Democratic Representative Eugene O'Flaherty of Chelsea was derided last fall when he left for a vacation to Portugal while the House and Senate debated drunken-driving legislation.
Murray did not immediately return a call seeking comment.