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Rating the governor
After 100 days in office, Governor Romney is failing to make the grade

THIS FRIDAY MARKS Governor Mitt Romney’s 100th day in office. Since his January 2 inauguration, our new governor has been busy firing off proposals to merge various government functions. Holding the line on taxes. Attending political functions like the St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast and House Speaker Tom Finneran’s fundraising roast. Addressing the Commonwealth via local television and backtracking from his televised assertions the next day. Yes, Mitt’s been busy. But what do the citizens of the Commonwealth have to show for it? Not much.

Since winning office on a platform of fatuous populism, to use Michael Kinsley’s description of the politics practiced by politicians who promise voters they can have it all without having to pay for any of it, Romney has just given us more of the same. He insists there’s no need to raise taxes despite a gaping $3 billion hole in next year’s budget. Indeed, during his February 26 State of the State address, he chirped, " When I ran for office, I said I’d find $1 billion [in waste and inefficiency]. I was wrong. I’m proud to report that our team has found $2 billion. " The claim prompted House Speaker Tom Finneran to protest that no one with a passing familiarity with the state budget had ever seriously claimed there was $2 billion of waste in state government — in other words, Romney was blowing hot air. Two days later, Romney backpedaled: " I’m not telling you that there’s $2 billion in waste and inefficiency that I’ve found. " Observers were left to wonder what, exactly, Romney’s team had found in terms of waste and inefficiency. Through it all, Romney has continued making his merry promises that none of government’s " core " services will be compromised by his proposals. All of which indicates that Romney’s first 100 days in office don’t seem to have changed him all that much.

Romney’s term thus far has been dominated by two initiatives: reforming state government and ridding the Commonwealth of William Bulger, UMass president, former Senate president, and BOW (Brother of Whitey). Let’s take the second one first, since it reveals so much of the governor’s make-up.

Before he was even inaugurated, Romney launched his first lob at Bulger. In December, the House Committee on Government Reform sought Bulger’s testimony about what he knew regarding his brother’s relationship with the FBI. Bulger suggested that he might not have time to attend the hearing. Romney, in turn, said that Bulger should comply with the committee’s request for information. It was refreshing, actually, to hear a political leader state the obvious, which is that any citizen, much less a public official of Bulger’s stature, should take seriously a request from a congressional committee investigating FBI corruption. Bulger ultimately invoked his right to take the Fifth Amendment to avoid incriminating himself, a not-unreasonable thing to do.

Since then, though, Romney’s desire to banish Bulger from office has devolved into Beacon Hill drama. In a move that nearly every observer has attributed to the governor’s goal of removing Bulger from his post at UMass (which he cannot do — only the UMass Board of Trustees has that power), Romney has proposed the elimination of the University of Massachusetts’s president’s office and administration, which would save $14 million. As with many of Mitt’s claims, this one falls apart under scrutiny and seems especially silly when $25 million a year is brought in by the president’s office via job-training programs targeted to private business and UMass Online, a Web-based degree program.

Last month, Romney called for a meeting with UMass trustees to discuss closing the president’s office and reorganizing the state’s higher-education system. But in a move best described as unprofessional, he didn’t invite Bulger to the meeting because the proposal would, in the end, eliminate his job. The meeting was never held because none of the trustees would attend without Bulger. There may have been a more transparent and clumsy way for Romney to try to orchestrate Bulger’s departure from public life, but it’s hard to think of it just now. Indeed, Romney’s desire to fire Bulger is so naked that it was a subject of joking at last month’s St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast. " My money’s on Bulger, " Senator John Kerry said to much laughter during his appearance at the podium, with a glance toward Romney and without any further explanation.

In other words, Romney is just as willing to play Beacon Hill hardball as the politicians he so memorably lampooned as the Gang of Three during his campaign. But so far he’s a minor-league player. The big loser in this fight won’t, of course, be Bulger. Or even Romney. It’ll be the student body of the University of Massachusetts. By any account, Bulger has actually done a great job as university president. He’s focused on fundraising, he’s built partnerships with private business, he’s installed an honors college at UMass Amherst, and he’s worked hard to raise the profile of the UMass system.

Romney’s proposal to eliminate Bulger’s job does nothing for students; indeed, it could leave them more vulnerable. A 1989 study of the UMass system strongly recommended that the state’s higher-education program move to a strong-president model of management. Such a president could focus on lobbying for state monies and raising private funds — two things that have a direct impact on tuition rates. What does it tell us about Romney that he’s so willing to sacrifice these goals in pursuit of political quarry?

We can find the answer in the other initiative that’s consumed so much of Romney’s first 100 days: reforming government. So far, he has proposed merging various groups that make up the state’s human-services departments for promised savings of $90 million. Essentially, the plan calls for laying off hundreds of employees, closing three human-services facilities, and selling various buildings owned by the state and currently used to house human-services agencies. Romney says these steps will consolidate redundant resources. Inefficiencies exist in any organization, public or private; but given that it’s hard to find anyone who will claim that state-funded human-services organizations are populated with wastrels and hacks, these claims are hard to believe. Meanwhile, offices have already been closed and layoffs are ongoing. Does the governor truly believe that services haven’t been affected?

Romney’s latest proposal is to merge the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the Massachusetts Highway Department for a claimed savings of $190 million. He also wants to rewrite the rules of the Turnpike Authority to allow him to fire turnpike officials at will. Having watched former governor Jane Swift lose such a battle in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Romney wants to eliminate any challenge to his authority.

The list goes on. Given that the governor takes such pride in rooting out waste, his decision, announced last month, to leave the Quinn Bill alone is inexplicable. The Quinn Bill costs taxpayers approximately $100 million annually. The state’s Board of Education called the program a " cash cow " two years ago, and it’s not hard to see why. It rewards police officers with generous raises — of 10 and 20 percent — for completing coursework with a tenuous relationship to law enforcement. On the other hand, he has proposed eliminating the Massachusetts District Commission, a haven for hacks. But in a little-noticed move, he’s proposed replacing the MDC with a " Division of Conservation and Recreation. " This saves money how? And then there was his loony attempt to extort bribes, of sorts, from Connecticut and Rhode Island to keep Massachusetts from legalizing casino gambling. A proposal, by the way, that both states essentially ignored.

Romney’s first 100 days in office have merely confirmed what we learned about him during the campaign. His approach to leadership can best be described as imperial. Romney’s résumé is impressive — savior of both Bain Capital and the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics (though many still wonder how he remained unaware of the enormous corruption embedded in those games). But this in itself is revealing. Saviors aren’t accustomed to the lens of scrutiny. Oh sure, Romney’s been vetted in the past by business partners and board members. But that’s a little like the fox watching the henhouse. Romney’s in a different field now. One where he’s watched not just by the insiders, but by the outsiders as well — most significantly, the press and the public. Soon enough, he’s going to learn that just because he says he wants something doesn’t mean he’s going to get it. Mitt’s in a position now where he has to make his case before he gets the backing for his ideas and initiatives. To date, he hasn’t convinced us.

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Issue Date: April 10 - 17, 2003
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