SO THIS IS what it’s like to have a governor.
As the Phoenix went to press, Governor Mitt Romney was expected to deliver a sober statewide address on local television Wednesday night detailing his plan for closing the state’s budget gap. Roughly one month after his inauguration, Romney is using all the tools at his disposal to govern — calling newspaper editorial writers to lobby for their support, actively trying to win over members of the legislature, and asking local broadcasters to give him time on television — even though his political party has just 23 members out of 160 in the House and six of 40 in the Senate. This represents a sweeping change on Beacon Hill. For the first time since 1990-’94, Governor William Weld’s freshman term in office (and really just the first two years of that term), Massachusetts has a fully engaged governor focused on the office and willing to use its power to fuel an ideological agenda.
Weld was succeeded by Paul Cellucci and Jane Swift, two Republican governors who — with the exception of Cellucci’s commitment to passing the statewide income-tax rollback in 2000 — were either unable or unwilling to push even the most meager initiatives. By the time Swift left office in January, conventional wisdom in Massachusetts held that Republican governors are at the mercy of the Democratic House and Senate leadership. Which is to say, at the mercy of House Speaker Tom Finneran. Romney, for the time being, is challenging that.
You can disagree with the substance of Romney’s actions. He has, for instance, embraced a deceptively benign approach to cutting local aid — reducing direct aid to cities and towns by the same percentage — that appears fair-minded. But upon further examination, it becomes clear that such cuts would hurt the state’s urban areas, which, after all, house the preponderance of the Commonwealth’s poor and needy. Cities such as Boston, Worcester, and Springfield need a higher percentage of money from the state to fund services for the poor than property-tax-rich suburbs do. You can take issue with his reluctance to call for tax increases to address the state’s dire fiscal predicament — a budget deficit that could be as high as $650 million this fiscal year. But you can’t fault the way Romney is using the trappings of the governor’s office to fuel his agenda.
For all practical purposes, Romney’s administration began January 10, eight days after his inauguration. That’s when he spoke at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) at the Sheraton Boston Hotel, with hundreds of local officials, including Boston mayor Tom Menino, in attendance. Romney arrived 20 minutes early and greeted several officials, including Menino. The governor deviated from the largely ceremonial role of issuing a formal greeting to the mayors and gave a more extensive policy briefing. Using one of his signature PowerPoint presentations, the governor delivered a grim message: he wanted to cut $200 million out of the $2 billion local-aid budget. To do this, he was filing legislation on Beacon Hill that would grant him emergency powers — dubbed " 9C authority, " after Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 29 Section 9C, which authorizes the governor to reduce public expenditures in a time of financial emergency — to make cuts in local aid and education spending, a task ordinarily reserved for the legislature.
For many of those present, Romney’s performance was a dud. His manner was coolly businesslike, and, when his speech was over, he didn’t take questions, leaving before anyone could speak with him. Instead, he left Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey behind to take the flak. Yet the speech had the desired effect on the larger audience outside the room. It sent the message to both Finneran and Senate president Robert Travaglini and the public at large that Romney meant business and was prepared to fight for what he wanted. By January 14, the House had approved Romney’s bill seeking 9C authority. The Senate did the same two days later. This isn’t how politics usually works in Massachusetts.
It’s fair to say that the 50 percent of the vote Romney received during the November 5 election — a five-point victory few Beacon Hill insiders saw coming — and the 45 percent garnered by a ballot initiative calling for the elimination of the state income tax, had something to do with the legislature’s willingness to give Romney expanded powers to cut the state budget. Even so, the legislature probably would not have gone along with Romney’s plan if the governor and his team hadn’t sold it so hard — and so effectively — to state legislators and the public.
Romney moved just as quickly to line up municipal support for his plan as he did when leaving the MMA meeting (dubbed " the lion’s den " by one administration insider). The day after the event, he appeared at the State House with a collection of local mayors and selectmen, including Mayors Dean Mazzarella of Leominster, Richard Kos of Chicopee, and Dan Mylott of Fitchburg. " These are not easy times, and it requires all of us to make sacrifices, at every level of government, " Mazzarella told the Associated Press. Romney also lobbied Finneran and Travaglini to go along with his plan. And he dispatched Healey on a whirlwind tour across the state to help sell the proposal.
Still, municipal leaders like Menino and MMA executive director Geoffrey Beckwith blasted Romney’s call for a reduction in local aid. During his January 14 state-of-the-city speech, easily one of the best of his career, Menino challenged state leaders. " We can’t just cut our way out of this recession, " he said. " This is about fairness and equity. " The sentiment was captured perfectly by the headline of a Boston Herald article published four days after Menino’s speech: class war: mitt’s plan for cuts pits rich suburbs vs. poor cities. Meanwhile, Finneran was coy about whether he’d support Romney’s bill or not: " The members would like a little bit more specificity as to what the governor and his team have in mind. "
Under prior Republican administrations, that would have been the end of it. The legislature would have slapped down the governor, and things would have proceeded as usual — that is to say, with Finneran running the state. But the Romney team wasn’t finished. The day of Menino’s state-of-the-city speech, the governor’s office issued a terse press release titled " Fact Sheet on Local Aid. " The release charged that " local aid has grown an average of 7.5% annually over the last decade " and explained that the gross amount of aid went from $2.5 billion in 1993 to $5.1 billion in 2003. It also pointed out that " growth in local revenues have been stable, while state revenues have fluctuated ... property taxes have continued to grow. " With this press release, Romney put out an effective answer to the stories predicting that cuts to local aid would lead to blood on the streets: cities, which have seen their budgets grow during the last decade, need to tighten their belts along with everyone else.
The administration found a sympathetic ear in Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh, who, it should be noted, had put in a request for information about local-aid data and revenues shortly after Romney’s speech to the MMA and who had written a piece questioning the fiscal plight of cities last April. In a January 15 op-ed column titled getting beyond chicken little on local aid cuts, Lehigh questioned whether the cries of local officials, such as North Adams mayor John Barrett, and the MMA, regarding the local aid were credible. " Let’s move beyond the Chicken Little squawking to some facts, " he wrote. He pointed out that during the fiscal crisis of the late ’80s and early ’90s, local officials seemed unwilling to pursue an increase in property-tax cuts to make up for deficiencies in local aid — a mechanism known as a Prop 2˝ override. That same day, the Globe ran a story headlined now pinched, localities rode high tide of state aid for years. The Herald took this line of reasoning a step further and, under the headline cambridge penny-pinched while others spent in ’90s, published a January 18 story about how the City of Cambridge had amassed a significant budget surplus.
These stories reflected a heavy dose of spin from the Romney administration, of course. But they also revealed a level of savvy we just haven’t seen from the governor’s office in the last 10 years. Team Romney, in short, effectively countered the complaints of municipal officials, whose first response to calls of budget-cutting — valid or invalid — is to cry " blood on the streets. " For long-time Beacon Hill watchers, this was a novelty. According to one State House insider, the difference between battling this administration and battling previous ones is like " night and day. " He adds: " There was nobody from the [Cellucci or Swift] administrations consistently working reporters and getting as much response. "
During the Swift administration, for example, the governor did not push one consistent message. Swift often received conflicting advice from several different competing advisers, and her administration did little to find novel ways of presenting information to the press and public to buttress its case. Of course, it can be argued that Swift’s administration was frequently bogged down in a defensive posture over one mini-controversy or another. But that can’t be said of Cellucci, who nonetheless displayed little interest and rarely took any initiative in broad, concerted public-policy battles.