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Massachusetts legislators reflect on Mitt Romney's record as governor

Mitt Romney mentions his business frequently on the campaign trail. He speaks extensively about himself as a family man. One thing he does not talk about as often? His record as governor of Massachusetts.

That changed Wednesday night in Denver, where Romney repeatedly cited his record as governor during his first debate with President Barack Obama.

He touted his experience working with the state’s Democratic Legislature.

“We worked to get our schools to be No. 1 in the nation, we cut taxes 19 times,” Romney said

He bragged about the state’s health care law.

“The best course for health care is to do what we did in my state, craft a plan at the state level that fits the needs of the state and then let’s focus on getting the costs down for people,” Romney said at one point.

“I like the way we did it in Massachusetts. I like the fact that in my state, we had Republicans and Democrats come together and work together,” he said at another.

On Thursday, state Democrats and Republicans rushed to define Romney’s tenure as governor as it emerged as a focus of the campaign.

“I don’t believe he was accurately portraying his time here as governor,” said state Rep. Stephen Kulik, a Worthington Democrat. “He did not work closely with the Legislature and I think anyone who served during that time will tell you that. He had great disdain for the Legislature — he was very much a solo act, if you will.”

State Rep. Dan Winslow of Norfolk, who served as chief legal counsel to Romney during the first half of his tenure as governor, took a different view.

“The proof is in the pudding. He got through a first in the nation, comprehensive health care reform,” Winslow said. “You can’t do that without working across the aisle.”

And if Romney didn’t work well with rank and file legislators, that is because Democratic lawmakers ceded too much power to their leadership, Winslow said.

“I understand that a lot of rank-and-file Democrats have their noses bent out of his shape because he didn’t know them,” Winslow said. “But if you’re governor and you want to get something done, do you talk to 160 people in the House or 40 in the Senate, or do you talk to the six people who really run the show?”

State Rep. John Scibak, a Democrat from South Hadley, agreed that Romney deserves plaudits for his work passing health care reform in Massachusetts, but he said it was hypocritical for the governor to disavow the plan nationally.

“When he did it, he said this is a model for the country, but he is the one who is running away from it,” Scibak said.

He said Romney has a “case of selective amnesia” regarding his record in Massachusetts. Of Romney’s frequent mention of Massachusetts as No. 1 in the nation in education, Scibak said, “he forgot that in his first year, the cuts to higher education were close to 20 percent. And he forgot that in 2003 and 2004, the cuts to K-12 were proportionately greater than in any other state in the country.”

A 2006 report from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center found that Massachusetts cut state funding for K-12 education by $236 million during the first half of Romney’s tenure when adjusting for inflation — the highest such cut in the nation, the center said.

Winslow acknowledged that education spending was cut under Romney, but added, “At the time spending was going down, achievement was going up. Do you measure the quality of education by how much you spend or how well the students do?”

MCAS data from the four years during Romney’s tenure confirm that point. The Composite Performance Index, the main state measure for tracking educational performance on the MCAS, increased in math and English each year under Romney.

The two sides also disagreed over Romney’s economic stewardship of the state.

State Sen. Michael Knapik, a Westfield Republican, praised Romney for taming a $3 billion budget deficit when he entered office in 2003. The state had entered a small recession in 2001-02, and Romney’s policies prompted a recovery, he said.

“You want your president or your governor to make the tough decisions and that is what Gov. Romney did,” Knapik said.

Scibak took exception to that argument, saying the deficit Romney faced in 2003 was closer to $1.3 billion. Romney also raised various fees to help cover the deficit, with the average fee per person rising to $1,200, Scibak said. And he said he left the state with a $1.1 billion structural deficit in 2007.

“To the average person, it doesn’t matter if you call it a tax or a fee,” Scibak said.

Both claims have elements of truth, but are misleading, according to a review of Romney’s record by FactCheck.org, a watchdog initiative run by the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Romney did initially face a projected $3 billion deficit in 2003, but ultimately an unexpected $1.3 billion increase in capital gains collections and $500 million in federal grants lowered that projection to $1.2 billion, the center said. To help close the gap, Romney raised $500 million in fees, the center said.

But to say that Romney left the state with a $1.1 billion deficit is also misleading. When he left office the state was facing a $400 million to $1.1 billion projected deficit, the center said. And in one of his last actions as governor, Romney vetoed $383 million in spending approved by the Legislature in 2007. State revenues ultimately improved and, early into his term, newly elected Gov. Deval Patrick restored Romney’s cuts.

Regardless of Romney’s record, all agreed the former governor won his first exchange with the president. But they drew different conclusions about what the debate ultimately means.

“I do think that based on a lot of what Mitt Romney said last night, it will be great material for ads showing his contradictory flip-flopping on positions,” Kulik said.

Winslow said Obama’s failure to restore the economy is the reason Obama lost and Romney won the debate.

“Romney has a plan to turn the economy around,” Winslow said. “He is a proven leader with ability to work across the aisle.”

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