Facing a budget deficit of $3 billion when he took over as Massachusetts governor in 2003, Mitt Romney immediately instituted emergency spending cuts, raised fees on items such as birth certificates, gun licenses and boat registrations, and closed corporate tax breaks to solve the shortfall.
Along the way, he won support even from Democratic lawmakers who praised the governor for balancing the state’s books.
Others were less enthusiastic. They criticized the former Bain Capital executive’s “austerity” measures as fiscal gimmicks — one-time “revenue grabs” that fixed the immediate deficit but failed to address the state’s long-term structural problems.
That is not exactly the kind of fundamental reform the federal government needs today, they say.
“His characterization on the campaign trail that he was able to balance the budget, and close the deficit through better management and reforms, that is simply not backed up by the facts,” said Michael J. Widmer, president of the nonpartisan Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, which regularly challenged aspects of Mr. Romney’s spending plans. “My overall comment about his approach, when you look at the substance of it, is that he [closed the budget gaps] the same way that governors forever have done it when they are facing fiscal crises, and that is to identify new sources of revenue and places to cut.”
The national deficit is a top issue for voters this year, and all sides in Washington say the bloated federal government is ripe for a total overhaul — including the tax code and entitlement spending.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Romney tells voters to look at his record in Massachusetts, where he balanced the budget every year, as required by state law.
“When I came in, we faced almost a $3 billion budget gap. There were some that said, ‘Why don’t we just raise taxes, or why don’t we just borrow money?’ We actually cut spending,” Mr. Romney said in a campaign ad during the primary. “I balanced the budget every single year, and by the time I left we had established over $2 billion of a rainy-day fund.”
Along the way, he benefited from an improving economy that pumped more revenue into Massachusetts and other states — and into the federal government. During that time, when George W. Bush was president, federal deficits dropped from $412 billion in 2004 to $160 billion in 2007.
“Massachusetts was floating on the national tide. Whatever good you could discern from the numbers was the result of the national economy, whatever was bad in the numbers was largely the national economy, too,” said Fred Bayles, director of the State House Program at Boston University. “He did not come in here and heroically turn the state around. He came in and presided over state government, but any large issues that took place was the decision of the legislature — and quite frankly, there were no exceptional actions taken by the governor or the legislature during Romney’s term, with the one exception, and that is the one thing he doesn’t want to take credit for: health care.”
David G. Tuerck, executive director of the fiscally conservative Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University, said Mr. Romney had little to do with the uptick in state revenue, but deserves credit for maneuvering within the confines set by Democrats, who held a veto-proof majority in the legislature.
“In effect, his high points were more what he tried to do than what he got done,” Mr. Tuerck said.
Independent fact-checkers backed up that view. They found that lawmakers overrode more than 700 of Mr. Romney’s 800 budget-related vetoes.
Former state Sen. Brian Lees, who served as Senate minority leader during Mr. Romney’s tenure, said Gov. Romney did succeed in pressuring Democrats to swallow cuts they didn’t want and quell any talk of raising the state income or sales taxes.