Romney downplays job turnover and jousts with legislators over economic development
Mitt Romney swept into office with a vow to put his business know-how to work for the Massachusetts economy. Nearly two years after his arrival, however, employment growth remains sluggish, while Romney has faced a job challenge of his own, with the top two members of his economic development team resigning in the past year. Romney’s also spent much time sparring with legislative leaders over who’s really on the economic ball, with both sides seeming to do their best to undercut the other—or take the credit.
“There’s been a revolving door [within the administration], and it seems the only leadership on the economic development front has come from the Legislature,” says state Rep. Michael Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat and House chairman of the Joint Committee on Commerce and Labor.
Last December, less than a year into the new administration, Robert Pozen, the former Fidelity Investments executive recruited by Romney to serve as an elevated secretary of economic development, with oversight of the departments of business and technology and labor and workforce development as well as the office of consumer affairs and business regulation, left state government, returning to the private sector as chairman of MFS Investment Management, a mutual-fund company. Following Pozen out the door 10 months later was business and technology director Barbara Berke, who spearheaded formation of regional economic advisory councils.
To that end, Kimball’s priority has been to get the state to do a much better job of connecting businesses with various technical assistance programs, grants, and other services available through state government and quasi-public agencies. Too many companies feel they are “off in the forest, with no map and no flashlight, at night,” he says.
Kimball has assembled a cross-agency “business resource team” to coordinate the activities of the office of business development; MassDevelopment, the state’s quasi-public development agency; and the Economic Stabilization Trust and Workforce Training Fund, state programs that offer loans and grants to businesses. Through a toll-free phone number and Web portal announced in September, businesses will be able to access state economic development programs through “a single point of contact,” says Kimball.
“One-stop shopping” for businesses is a concept observers say they’ve heard before. And even those who are eager to see it in action say that streamlining access to state services for businesses can’t make up for deep cuts in the offices that provide them. “You can’t undertake these ambitious programs if you don’t have anybody to implement them,” says Richard Lord, president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts.
Indeed, regional offices of the Massachusetts Office of Business Development once offered a form of “one-stop shopping” for business services, before budget cuts slashed the agency from 42 full-time positions in the mid-1990s to just 15 today. Romney has twice proposed funding increases for the regional offices, only to be rebuffed by the Legislature.
For its part, the Legislature’s big splash on economic development came in the form of a $100 million economic stimulus package passed last year (“Mass. Production,” CW, Summer 2003). The one-time appropriation, which draws money from the state’s tobacco settlement fund, directed $35 million to the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative for, among other things, state matching money for competitive federal research grants and $25 million for the state’s Emerging Technology Fund, a program begun by Gov. William Weld to aid growing technology-oriented firms.
Romney initially panned the idea of a stimulus package, saying his business background told him the market is a better judge of investments than state bureaucrats. He tried to cut the package in half, but the Democratic-led Legislature restored nearly all of the original funding. Romney still doubts it had much effect.
What the Legislature should have done to boost employment, Romney says, was adopt his proposed reforms to the state’s unemployment insurance fund.
“He vetoed the money for this center twice but he’s coming down to cut the ribbon,” says Rodrigues. Scheduled to join Romney at the event is the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council’s new president, Tom Finneran, the former House Speaker who proposed the economic-stimulus package, and with whom Romney sparred over the wisdom of such state investments in the first place.