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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson March 2, 2012

Ad accuses Mitt Romney of leaving 'Massachusetts $1 billion dollars in debt'

An ad sponsored by the Red White and Blue Fund -- a pro-Rick Santorum super PAC -- attacks former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney over his record of fiscal stewardship while in office.

The ad says that Romney "left Massachusetts $1 billion in debt."

We decided to see if that was accurate.

In the ad, the Red White and Blue Fund cites three articles that were included in an opposition-research document attributed to the campaign of Arizona Sen. John McCain, who faced Romney in the Republican presidential primary four years earlier.

One of the articles ran in the Boston Globe on Dec. 30, 2006, during the transition period between the governorships of Romney, who didn’t seek reelection, and his successor, Democrat Deval Patrick.

The Globe reported that aides to Patrick said the state "is facing a deficit that could reach $1 billion next year, a looming budget gap that observers say could force Patrick to scale back his ambitious agenda, slash spending, or raise taxes."

The Globe reported that in a Nov. 27, 2006, briefing to Patrick, Romney aides projected a budget deficit of between $400 million and $1.1 billion for fiscal 2008, which was to begin in July 2007, six months into Patrick’s term. The total state budget at the time was $26 billion.

So the ad has some justification for using the $1 billion figure. But based on our discussions with budget experts in the state, we find the ad ignores important details:

• The number in question was a projection of a possible future budget deficit. It was an estimate, based on a snapshot of economic data, of what might happen, and it was offered to allow Patrick to figure out how to balance the budget for a fiscal year beginning more than six months later. It was not a final scorecard on Romney’s time as governor.

In fact, about a month after the private briefing, Romney issued an updated projection that was more optimistic, based on healthier revenue projections. In the Globe article, aides to Patrick accused Romney of offering the public sunnier projections in public than they gave in private. But it eventually became clear that the revenue picture was indeed improving -- enough to allow Patrick to restore $383.6 million in emergency budget cuts Romney had made a month earlier.

"The revenue did come in a bit better than planned, and ultimately Patrick presented a balanced budget," said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, an independent budget think tank. Widmer informally advised Patrick’s transition team. "There was a tight budget, and it couldn’t fund some of the increases Patrick had proposed in the campaign, but it didn’t result in major cuts, either."

• The ad’s use of the term "debt" is inaccurate. The figure cited in the 2006 briefing referred to a projected shortfall for one fiscal year. "Debt" in the budgetary context refers to the cumulative total of all past deficits, less surpluses. And this wasn't even a deficit -- it was a projected shortfall that state officials had to address in order to balance the budget.

• Using the $1 billion figure means taking the high end of a range that begins at $400 million.

• Massachusetts, like most states, has a requirement that the governor must submit, and the Legislature must pass, a balanced budget. So contrary to the ad’s suggestion, there was never an official deficit, much less one 10 digits in scope.

And even if there had been a deficit that big, Romney wouldn’t get full blame.

"The final budget document is the creation of the Massachusetts Legislature, which now has and did have a veto-proof Democratic majority during Romney’s reign," said Fred Bayles, director of the Boston University Statehouse Program. "Governors submit the first budget draft, which then goes through major changes in the Legislature. It is disingenuous for any governor to take the credit or blame for the final budget."

Our ruling

The ad says Romney "left Massachusetts $1 billion in debt."

Featured Fact-check

That is inaccurate or misleading in several ways. The Red, White and Blue fund cherry-picks the highest number from a range of estimates. Also, it was not a "debt."  It was just one projected shortfall for the upcoming year -- and one that ultimately didn't materialize.

Like most states, Massachusetts must have a balanced budget every year. And in keeping with that requirement, Patrick, the incoming governor, submitted a balanced budget within a few months.

We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

Red White and Blue Fund, "Obama" (ad), Feb. 24, 2012

"Oppo dump" research book on Mitt Romney, 2007-2008

National Conference of State Legislatures, "NCSL Fiscal Brief: State Balanced Budget Provisions," October 2010

Boston Globe, "State could face $1b deficit in '07; New governor may have to revise agenda," Dec. 30, 2006 (accessed via Nexis)

Interview with Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, March 3, 2012

E-mail interview with Fred Bayles, director of the Boston University Statehouse Program, March 3, 2012

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Ad accuses Mitt Romney of leaving 'Massachusetts $1 billion dollars in debt'

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