Commonwealth Forum panelists give Romney a taste of the future

INTRO TEXT

“We do want Mitt Romney to succeed. If he succeeds, we succeed,” said House Speaker Thomas Finneran at the first of two Commonwealth Forums entitled “No Ordinary Time: Advice for the New Governor in a Changed and Challenged Commonwealth,” both moderated by CommonWealth editor Robert Keough. The first forum was held on November 22 at the Omni Parker House Hotel in Boston, with the second at Holyoke Community College on December 6.

In Boston, discussing the state’s fiscal crisis, Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation president Michael Widmer put little faith in short-term solutions, saying that “casino gambling, [reduced] Lottery payouts, and federal reimbursements” would not close the gap between state spending and tax revenues. As for Romney’s plans to restructure government and deliver services more efficiently, Widmer said, “it’s likely to take time and will not be accomplished in the period of fiscal year ’04.” Widmer also spoke at the Holyoke forum, where he warned against “sacrificing investments” in education and work force development. He also said that short-term borrowing to cover a portion of the deficit might have to be considered, and would be preferable to “tobacco securitization,” or selling, at a deep discount, the rights to future payments under the national tobacco settlement to get the money now, which has been done by 11 states.

“Borrowing against 30 years of tobacco payments is a horrible idea,” said Widmer. “It’s the height of fiscal irresponsibility.”

At the Boston forum, Finneran agreed that the state should “avoid reliance on one-time revenues. It will only exacerbate the present difficulty.” Finneran also noted Romney has “an extraordinary record” in the private sector and denied that the new governor’s budget would be dead-on-arrival in the overwhelmingly Democratic House. But Finneran did suggest that Romney avoid “gimmickry and denials and finger pointing” in dealing with the Legislature.

Darnell Williams, executive director of the Urban League of Massachusetts, worried that when government makes “difficult” decisions, “the impact on vulnerable populations seems to be the hardest.” The state has a responsibility to provide adequate education and health care, Williams said, adding, “We have a revenue problem and not a spending one.”

Institute of Contemporary Art president Jill Medvedow said Romney must not abandon state support of the arts, pointing out that “the not-for-profit cultural economy employs 45,000 people statewide” and is a growth industry in much of the Bay State.

Bruce Schulman, a professor of history at Boston University, said that the national trend of electing businessmen to high political offices had finally arrived in Massachusetts, thanks to Romney. But Schulman warned that Romney can’t ignore the state’s “traditions of a vibrant, autonomous, deeply committed political class and become an out-and-out Sunbelt-style, anti-government, business conservative.”

In Holyoke, Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees admitted that Romney would have an easier time if the GOP contingent in the Legislature were larger and added that his party “needs to work harder at getting people to run for office.” But he said that Romney’s lack of “preconceived notions” about how to work with the Legislature could work to his benefit.

John Lombardi, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, said Romney must keep an eye on what’s happening in other states, especially those that rival the Bay State in “competitive energy.” Referring to parochialism on Beacon Hill, Lombardi said, “If we do not stop fighting among ourselves, and figure out how to fight the people who are eating our lunch, we’re going to be in trouble.”

Allan Blair, president of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, urged Romney not to “squeeze businesses” in order to solve the state’s fiscal problems. He said that his region is nurturing a “knowledge corridor” that is “prepared to contribute to the state’s economy recovery when it does recover.”

While recognizing constraints on state spending, Barbara Schaffer Bacon, an arts management consultant, argued that western Massachusetts should not bear the brunt of cuts in arts programs. “We don’t have the corporate or private-sector support that Boston has,” Bacon noted.

Finally, Ron Story, professor of history at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, advised Romney to strengthen “bridging institutions,” such as political parties and labor unions, that encourage groups like immigrants and young people to take an active interest in civic life. He warned that teenagers, in particular, “have lower expectations and lower aspirations,” a trend that does not bode well for a healthy democracy.

Both the Boston and Holyoke forums began with an analysis by CommonWealth associate editor Robert David Sullivan on “Where the Votes Were: Mapping the Political Geography of Election ’02.”

The Commonwealth Forums are a joint project of MassINC and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. Transcripts of the forums, provided by State House News Service, can be found here.