Is Romney’s Massachusetts record really as bad as Obama says?

at 11:00 AM ET, 06/14/2012

“When Mitt Romney was governor, Massachusetts was Number One: Number One in state debt — $18 billion in debt, more debt per person than any other state in the country. At the same time, Massachusetts fell to 47th in job creation — one of the worst economic records in the country. First in debt, 47th in job creation: that’s Romney economics.”

-- Narration from President Obama campaign ad

President Obama’s campaign team has hammered Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts record for the past few weeks in an effort to dispel any notion that the GOP presidential candidate has proven his chops when it comes to job creation and financial stewardship — areas opponents argue that the president is weak.

Let’s see how Massachusetts fared while Romney was governor from 2003 until 2007. Did the state really distinguish itself with such unflattering numbers?

The Facts

It’s ironic that the Obama campaign would criticize Romney for adding state debt when under his presidency the national debt has reached the greatest level as a percentage of the gross domestic product since World War II. (See Office of Management and Budget historical tables, Table 7.1)

This new ad appears to be an attempt to deflect criticism of the president’s own fiscal policies, which Republicans are hitting hard these days. But state and national debt are not the same thing, as we pointed out in a previous column. Massachusetts debt consists mostly of money borrowed for capital investments such as public buildings and roads, whereas the federal government borrows in large part to cover its budget deficits — and even to pay off interest.

The Obama team mentioned that Massachusetts had “more debt per person than any other state in the country.” This claim is true, according to a series of reports we obtained from Moody’s Investors Services, which is one of the nation’s leading credit-rating agencies.

Romney’s last fiscal plan took effect in 2007, and the Bay State had the highest per-capita debt in the nation that year at $4,153 per resident. Connecticut finished a distant second at $3,713 per person, and Hawaii came in third with $3,630.

The states ended up in that same order when we calculated their averages during Romney’s four-year term. That means the Obama campaign is still on solid ground.

But we should mention a few caveats. The first is that Massachusetts ranked first and second respectively during the two years before Romney took office, so high debt was nothing new. In fact, the Bay State has ranked in the top five for decades.

“Massachusetts has always had a very high level of debt, but it’s always had a high credit rating too,” said Moody’s spokesman David Jacobson.

Beyond that, Romney actually slowed the annual rate of debt growth from 5.8 percent to 1.9 percent, as we pointed out in our previous column.

Massachusetts lacks a strong system of regional governments that typically pay for their own capital investments. A 2009 state report noted that “many of the capital needs of the entire state are borne by the Commonwealth itself,” which is rather unique.

“Part of the reason the debt level is so high is because the state finances projects that most states would finance at the local level,” Jacobson said.

The 2009 state report also noted that the Bay State’s debt numbers are skewed by fact that they “include certain debt issued by entities other than the Commonwealth for which the Commonwealth is not liable (e.g., $4.45 billion of debt issued by the Massachusetts School Building Authority).” In other words, the state itself didn’t accrue all that debt.

Finally, we should mention that Massachusetts consistently boasts one of the highest per-capita income levels in the nation, which means its residents are fairly well-equipped to handle a large debt burden. With that in mind, the number we should really examine is debt as a percentage of personal income.

In that regard, Massachusetts ranked second in the nation during Romney’s tenure, with state debt averaging 9 percent of income. Hawaii ranked first with debt at 11 percent and Connecticut finished third at 8 percent.

For what it’s worth, these rankings held steady during the four years before Romney took office and during the length of his term. Furthermore, Massachusetts hasn’t moved from second place since Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick took over, with the exception of 2011, when the state fell behind Connecticut for a year.

Romney obviously doesn’t fare much better under the debt-to-income metric, but that goes to show that Obama’s campaign didn’t need to use any tricks to make its point about high debt.

Next, let’s examine the claim about employment numbers.

True to what the ad states, Massachusetts ranked 47th in the nation in job creation during Romney’s tenure. But that’s an average that doesn’t reflect the fact that he improved the state’s standing. Massachusetts started out at 50th when Romney entered office and ended at 28th by the time he left, as our colleagues at FactCheck.org noted in an article.

It’s worth noting that Massachusetts struggled to keep pace with the rest of the nation in terms lowering unemployment. We’ve mentioned in previous columns, including one this week, that the state rose 11 spots in national jobless ranking during Romney’s term.

You’ll notice the former governor has a mixed record on employment, with the outcomes largely depending on how you look at the data. This is what happens when job gains are tenuous. The takeaway is that Romney’s record is decent at best and unimpressive at worst -- but not wildly successful or dismal, as the two campaigns want voters to believe.

The Pinocchio Test

High debt and slow job growth were long-standing problems in Massachusetts before Romney took office, and the GOP candidate actually improved conditions. Obama’s ad ignored all this.

The campaign mentioned an average of the Bay State’s job-creation rankings rather than doing a year-by-year comparison, thus hiding the fact that the state’s standing improved considerably under Romney. It also used a misleading debt metric to paint the worst possible picture of the Republican challenger’s financial stewardship — ignoring the fact that he slowed the rate of debt growth.

The president’s reelection team earns two Pinocchios for its latest ad about Romney’s Massachusetts record.

Two Pinocchios

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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