Beware of Mitt, say Bay State conservatives

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Mitt Romney’s Iowa surge coincides with a new Iowa TV spot in which he touts himself as a genuinely conservative businessman who will shrink and streamline the federal government.

But some Massachusetts tax watchdogs and small government advocates who remember Romney’s days in the governor’s chair say: Iowa buyer beware. They note that Romney promised leaner government when he sat atop Beacon Hill from 2003 to 2007, only to leave the state largely unchanged. Rather, they say his legacy is thick with tax and fee hikes that should make conservatives do a double-take, a big-government proposal for what amounted to a “revenue czar,” and, of course, Romney-care, which bears no small resemblance to President Obama’s Afford Healthcare Act.

“Did he make government smaller and simpler – no, it looked very much like what it did four years earlier,” said Michael Widmer, president of the nonpartisan Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. “There was very little reform to show for his four years.”

Gubernatorial candidate Romney vowed sweeping changes to the Bay State in 2002 – just as he is doing in 2012 while running against Washington. He inherited a $3 billion budget deficit, a recession and a declining jobs base.

As a candidate, Romney vowed to find $2 billion to $3 billion in waste, fraud, abuse and duplication from state government to close the budget gap. Romney simply cut spending and axed programs. (Widmer noted Romney never found the alleged billions in wastefulness.) And, in the ultimate apostasy for 2012 conservatives, Romney also went hard after corporate loopholes to generate more tax money from businesses.

Equally notable, critics say, is that Romney raised revenues with a host of fee hikes and tax levies. In essence, when you needed it from the state, he jacked up its price.

In all, Romney proposed 88 fee hikes in his first budget – not all of which became law. Fee hikes were proposed on a spectacular array of items that had been free or cheap: hunting licenses, permits to sell used cars, elevator inspection permits, fees to leave your car at a state reservation, fees to deliver petroleum. He even proposed a $15 fee for I.D. cards for the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind – a plan that was rejected.

It was the sort of balanced approach – a combination of spending cuts and revenue enhancements – that’s become a non-starter in Republican Washington. “He balanced budget old fashioned way,” Widmer said. “You cut programs and raised revenue.”

While some minor agencies were combined to save money, Widmer poo-poohed any notion of serious executive branch restructuring under Romney.

“Reforms were never realistically going to be part of the equation,” Widmer said.

Brian Gilmore, executive vice president at Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s largest employer trade group, recalled “there was nibbling around the edges …(but) there weren’t major changes” — such as slashing the ranks of state employees, as was done under former Republican Gov. William Weld in the 1900s?

Indeed, the public sector labor force expanded under Romney’s watch. According to the  Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the state payroll increased by 3,000 workers, or 2.6 percent, under Romney,

Gilmore’s group has a bone to pick with Romney the conservative businessman. While it applauded a number of his stands as good for business, the group found it “unfair” that Romney went after business tax loopholes three times in four years for a total of $375 million annually.

If businesses were outraged by the loophole closings, they were flabbergasted by what many called an “unprecedented” expansion of state power by the GOP governor.

As he cracked down on loopholes, Romney also proposed giving control to the state revenue commissioner to adjust the tax filings of certain corporations who used complicated transactions and out-of-state shelters to avoid paying their fair share of state taxes.

“It was something you might take out of the liberal Democratic playbook,” said David Tuerck, director of the conservative Beacon Hill Institute.

Romney eventually withdrew the proposal. But Tuerck warns Iowa conservatives that Romney’s signature health care reform – grew rather than whittled away at the size of the state. It forced the creation of a new agency, the HealthCare Connector.

“It becomes a way to make government bigger,” said Tureck, an opponent of both the state and national health care laws. “It was naïve of Romney to think you could put a mandate into the system and think expanded coverage wasn’t an expansion.”

But James Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a market-based think tank, said conservative critics are wrong to focus on loophole closings and Romneycare. He saw Romney’s reforms up close as chief of staff and undersecretary for policy in state Office of Environmental Affairs.

“The cuts in 2003-2004 were real – there were people marching in the street saying, ‘What about my programs,’” Stergios said, recalling emergency budget cuts Romney made to slash spending.

Romney did shrink some agencies, including a pair in Stergios’ department — merging the patronage haven Boston-based Metropolitan District Commission and state parks offices to form the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

“That says something about his ability to streamline government,” Stergios said.

Romney merged other agencies – for instance, he combined the sprawling state colleges and universities and forced out University of Massachusetts President William Bulger, brother of alleged mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger. But he failed to get a Democratic Legislature to go along with plans to consolidate the troubled, costly Massachusetts Turnpike Authority into his highway department. It would take his successor, Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, to slap together all of the state’s transportation agencies into a single cost-saving entity.

The irony for Romney is that in running away from his record in Massachusetts, he is running from the very “balanced approach” to budget deficits — closing loopholes, raising revenues and enacting spending cuts — that a lot of conservative and middle-of-the-road Americans  believe is needed to right the ship in Washington.

Tureck warned Iowa conservatives to steer clear of Romney-style reform.

“He has an aura of being a big government conservative – his willingness to roll back Obama[‘s health care program]  is not as clear as Santorum or Bachmann,” Tureck said. “Iowans should think about that when they decide who to vote for.”

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