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Slanted take: Obama campaign on Romney’s Massachusetts record

at 11:00 AM ET, 06/05/2012

“Romney Economics: It didn’t work in Massachusetts, and it won’t work now.”

— Slogan of a new series of Obama campaign ads

President Obama’s re-election team opened a new front last week in its effort to undermine the supposed strengths of Republican challenger Mitt Romney, shifting its focus from the candidate’s business background to his record as Massachusetts governor. The campaign is trying to convince voters that Romney’s executive experience is more of an embarrassment than a strong suit.

This ad, which came out Thursday, attacks the former governor in three core areas: jobs, taxes and debt. Former North Adams, Mass. Mayor John Barrett said Romney was an ineffective leader, claiming “the proof is in the pudding.” Let’s examine Romney’s record in the Bay State to see if he really left the state in such bad shape. We’ll focus on selected quotes that cover the main points of the ad.

The Facts

We should point out that the Obama campaign only sought commentary from Democrats for this ad. Every legislator in the video is a member of the Democratic Party, while the past and present mayors are all registered Democrats.

It’s fair to say the analyses in this video are far from balanced or objective. That’s no surprise with a campaign ad, but it’s still worth keeping in mind as we review the claims.

Taxes

“What we heard from Mitt Romney during the campaign was the no-new-taxes pledge. He found very quickly once he was in office that he couldn’t deliver on any services without having sufficient resources, so he raised our taxes by raising our fees.”

-- Mass. State Rep. Jay Kaufman

This comment suggests Romney broke some kind of promise not to raise tax rates, so we need to determine whether the former governor truly made such a commitment.

During his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Romney refused to sign a pledge from the Massachusetts-based anti-tax group Citizens for Limited Taxation that bound candidates to “oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.” So the Republican candidate never put his name on a “no-new-taxes pledge.”

The most unequivocal tax promise we could find from Romney came during a 2002 debate at Suffolk University Law School, when he said this:

“Let me make this very clear, I will not, in my budget next year, have any tax increases. I will fight taxes at every turn. The problem with increasing taxes is it puts a burden on working families. They can’t afford it . . . I will not sign a tax increase passed by the Legislature.”

So what actually happened with taxes during Romney’s tenure? Well, he didn’t approve any kind of general rate hikes, but he did raise fees and close tax loopholes, both of which brought more revenue into government coffers. We covered much of this for our biographical fact-checking series on the presumptive GOP nominee.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, the Massachusetts Democratic Party and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who opposed Romney in the 2008 GOP primary, all estimated that the former governor raised a combined $750 million per year in additional revenue through fees and loophole closures.

This becomes a matter of semantics, since Romney didn’t technically raise taxes. But Kaufman chose his words carefully, saying Romney “raised our taxes by raising our fees.”

“The only place that I remember Mitt Romney actually cutting taxes was for the 278 wealthiest families in our state.”

-- Mass. State Rep. Carl Sciortino

It’s rather hypocritical of Sciortino to criticize Romney for not passing tax cuts for the middle class. After all, the former GOP governor proposed reducing the income-tax rate at least twice while in office, but Democrats blocked his efforts.

Jobs

“We knew that we were losing manufacturing jobs, and he never found any solutions to try and figure out, how do we keep them.”

-- Mass. State Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that manufacturing employment in Massachusetts started plummeting two years before Romney took office, and it continued on a downward trajectory throughout his tenure. But the average annual rate of loss slowed every year during his tenure, falling from 7 percent when when he started to 1.8 percent when he left.

The bottom line here is that Massachusetts was hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs before Romney took office, and the losses continued both during and after his time as governor. The number of manufacturing jobs has remained somewhat steady at about 250,000 since midway through 2009, but slight decreases have occurred during six of the past 13 months on record with the BLS.

Sanchez has no room to talk in this regard. He’s been a Massachusetts representative since 2003, which was the same year Romney took office. Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick succeeded Romney, so Sanchez had ample time to restore manufacturing jobs with an executive from his own party.

The Obama campaign team released a new video on Monday with an additional claim about Romney’s jobs record, so we’ll cover that briefly. Here’s the video:

“Instead of hiring workers from his own state, Romney outsourced call-center jobs to India.”

-- Narration from Obama campaign ad

We awarded two Pinocchios apiece to Vice President Biden and the Obama campaign team for making essentially this same claim in the past.

Romney vetoed a 2004 budget provision that would have prohibited Massachusetts from contracting with companies that outsourced the state’s work to other countries. The Democrat-led legislature did not override this veto, which suggests few lawmakers were willing to fight hard for the provision -- they overturned 117 other vetoes during his term.

It’s worth noting that Romney said the measure would cost lots of money without preventing the overseas jobs from simply going to other states.

Massachusetts at the time was paying Citigroup to operate a card-based food-stamp system that included a call center in India. The Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance eventually insisted that those jobs return to the U.S., but much of the work just ended up in other states, as Romney had assumed it would.

Debt

“[Romney] used debt to pay for annual operations costs. That’s like paying your rent on your credit card, and that was Mitt Romney’s way of paying for the way we maintained our highways, the way we cleaned our streets. It was a really flawed way of addressing basic operations, was to go deeper and deeper into debt.”

-- Mass. State Rep. Carl Sciortino

We covered the Massachusetts debt issue in a previous column that explored whether Romney’s Bay State debt is comparable to federal debt -- for the most part it is not. To review, Massachusetts is required to balance its operating budget, so the state’s debt comes mostly from bonds for capital investments -- construction and renovations for schools, hospitals, roads and so on.

In theory, this should keep the state from borrowing money to cover budget deficits. But we discovered that Massachusetts has been shifting certain operating expenses -- especially payroll costs for capital workers -- to the capital budget to help balance its ledger without raising new revenue, at least in the short-term.

Sciortino is correct that this practice took place under Romney, but it’s been going on since at least 1990, according to state financial reports. We should note that Democratic lawmakers haven’t ended this cost-shifting gimmick despite holding a supermajority in both chambers of the state legislature and working with a Democrat governor since 2007. As such, Sciortino’s remarks are hypocritical.

It’s also worth noting that Romney cut the rate of debt growth in half during his time in office, as we mentioned in our previous column.

The Pinocchio Test

The first video in this new line of attack features more than a half-dozen Democrats offering their slanted take on Romney’s record as governor. While none of their claims are factually incorrect, some are misleading.

We find no fault with the assertion that Romney “raised our taxes by raising our fees,” as Kaufman put it. Romney could argue that taxes and fees are not literally the same thing, but Kaufman’s careful language suggests only that they have the same effect.

Sciortino, on the other hand, said he only remembers Romney lowering taxes for a few hundred rich people. He conveniently forgot -- or just ignored -- the fact that Democrat-controlled legislatures rejected proposals to lower the income-tax rate.

In terms of jobs, the ad suggests that Romney did nothing to curb big losses in the manufacturing sector. But the trend pre-dated Romney’s time in office, and the rate of decline slowed during his tenure.

Romney appears to have been onto something when he argued that approving the anti-outsourcing bill wouldn’t prevent call-center jobs from going to other states. The Democrat-dominated legislature also seems to have put up little fight against the governor’s veto.

As for debt, Massachusetts was borrowing money to pay for things like highway maintenance and street cleaning long before Romney became governor. If Democrats think that’s a “flawed way of addressing basic operations,” they could certainly end the practice. Yet they haven’t done that despite holding a supermajority in both chambers of the legislature and working with a Democrat governor.

Overall, the Obama campaign team earns Two Pinocchios for its latest ads.

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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