Brian McGrory's column in this morning's Boston Globe keeps alive the issue of Democratic Gubernatorial nominee Deval Patrick's criticism of the fee increases implemented by the Romney administration shortly after it took office in 2003. Earlier this week at a press conference, Patrick was asked what he would have done instead of the fee increases had he been Governor nearly four years ago. Patrick sidestepped the question.
There are questions, pitfalls, and even opportunities for Patrick in this issue. The first question here is whether the Romney administration was truly "fiscally irresponsible" to raise fees when it did. To answer this, one might go right to the source - the audited financial statements of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. What they show is that looking back to January 2003, things looked grim. The Commonwealth ended fiscal year 2001 with about $2.7 billion in general fund reserves, or about 19 percent of revenues. A year later, the comparable figure had dropped to $1.3 billion, or about 8 percent of revenues. The Commonwealth had used a significant portion of its financial reserves to stay afloat - and in January 2003 this trend did not look like it would change anytime soon.
To the question of whether the Romney administration was fiscally irresponsible to raise fees, the answer is "probably not," though a less fiscally conservative administration might have increased fees less or perhaps delayed the implementation of these fees.
A pitfall for Patrick arises here because the Romney administration was likely not the only party on Beacon Hill that was looking for ways to stem the financial bleeding - and not the only one likely to favor a fiscally conservative approach to steming that bleeding. Former House Speaker Tom Finneran was well-known as a fiscal conservative - it is likely that Finneran was integrally involved in decisions regarding financial reserves and revenues. This is particularly true in January 2003 because of the transition in the Senate Presidency. Former Senator Tom Birmingham was on his way out as Senate President. Sen. Robert Travaglini was on his way in. The problem for Patrick is that if credit or blame is to be truly assigned in this case, he needs to include at least one powerful Democrat for consideration.
Another pitfall for Patrick is that - assuming that Finneran was integrally involved in these decisions - this illustrates the power of the legislative leadership relative to the Governor in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As much as Patrick may want to accomplish as Governor, his ability to carry out his programs will depend on the cooperation of House Speaker Sal DiMasi and Senate President Robert Travaglini. To the extent that Patrick's agenda differs from that of the legislative leadership, it is not likely to get very far.
The opportunity for Patrick here is to talk about what has happened since 2003. The Commonwealth ended fiscal 2003 with about $1.3 billion in financial reserves, or about 7 percent of revenues - about where it ended fiscal 2002. However, as of June 30, 2005, the Commonwealth had more than $4 billion in reserves, or nearly 19 percent of revenues. While this is impressive, it has happened at a high cost to many of the Commonwealth's stakeholders. For example, many if not most cities and towns have seen their financial reserves deteriorate - in some cases, significantly - during the past four years. Those same cities and towns have seen deterioration in the services they provide - or the need to pass overrides of Proposition 2 1/2. Deval Patrick has been discussing this issue, but a clear comparison of the financial fortunes of the Commonwealth and its cities and towns might provide him with a boost - and a recovery from the downdraft that his campaign suffered this week.