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In recent campaign events, Mitt Romney has made the federal debt a major issue, even standing in front of an oversized debt clock during a visit to St. Petersburg, Fla.
In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Romney made a point of contrasting the fiscal record of President Barack Obama with his own record as governor of Massachusetts. Romney was elected governor in 2002 and served one four-year term.
"Issue by issue, (voters) have an opportunity to see my record when I was governor of Massachusetts," Romney said in the May 12, 2012, interview. "We were able to cut back on the size of government. Actually, we didn't just slow the rate of growth of our government, we actually cut it. We pulled back on the spending of our state."
We wondered whether that accurately reflected Romney’s fiscal record in the Bay State.
Looking at the numbers
We turned to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, an independent group that studies fiscal policy in the state. They provided us with the figures for total state spending.
Determining the proper time frame for judging Romney’s claim is tricky, since the governor’s term doesn’t line up precisely with the state’s fiscal year. Romney would have had no influence on the 2002 budget, but he would have had responsibility (along with the Legislature) for the second half of the 2003 budget, as well as authority (again, with the Legislature) for 2004, 2005 and 2006, and, finally, for the first half of the 2007 budget.
So in a moment, we’ll look at two possible time frames. First, here are the raw numbers, sometimes known as the "nominal" numbers:
Fiscal year 2002 (no Romney influence): $22.47 billion
Fiscal year 2003 (partial-year Romney influence): $22.25 billion
Fiscal year 2004 (full-year Romney influence): $22.49 billion
Fiscal year 2005 (full-year Romney influence): $24.22 billion
Fiscal year 2006 (full-year Romney influence): $25.44 billion
Fiscal year 2007 (partial-year Romney influence): $27.92 billion
If you compare fiscal 2007 (the last year Romney had any influence on the budget) to fiscal 2002 (the last year before he had any influence), spending rose by about 24 percent over five years, or a little under 5 percent per year.
If you instead compare 2006 (the last all-Romney budget) to 2003 (the first partial Romney budget), the increase is 14 percent over three years, which is also an increase of just under 5 percent per year.
So however you look at it, nominal spending -- that is, the number of dollars spent, without any kind of mathematical adjustments -- increased on Romney’s watch. That makes his claim incorrect.
There are at least two other ways of looking at the numbers -- adjusting the numbers for inflation, and comparing state spending to total income earned in the state. (Romney’s campaign did not return an inquiry, so we’re not sure what measurement they were using.)
The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, an affiliate of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, offers a user-friendly tool for delving into Massachusetts fiscal data. For the inflation-adjusted numbers, spending fell by about three-tenths of 1 percent over the five-year period discussed above, or by about four-tenths of 1 percent percent over the three-year alternative period. Those are small declines, but they are declines.
Meanwhile, spending as a percentage of income earned in the state rose by 0.13 percentage points over the five-year period, or by 0.01 percentage points over the three-year time span. These are small increases, but they are increases.
Still, we feel most comfortable using the most basic statistic -- nominal dollars -- because of how Romney worded his claim. Romney didn’t include any qualifications, like "we cut spending to below the growth of inflation" or "we cut spending as a share of state income." He simply said that his administration cut spending, period. That suggests to us that nominal dollars are the best yardstick.
Andrew C. Bagley, director of research and public affairs for the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, agreed.
"Gov. Romney said he cut spending in state government," Bagley said. "Comparing spending to (state income) may provide interesting insights, but it does not help address the question of whether state spending increased during Gov. Romney’s term."
Who gets the credit?
When rating claims, PolitiFact factors in not only whether the claim is numerically correct but also whether it’s appropriate for the speaker to assign credit or blame. In this case, Romney certainly had some influence on the Massachusetts budget, but he also had to work with an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature -- one that continually rebuffed his policies.
"The Democrats had veto-proof majorities in both chambers and rewrote Romney’s budget, as they have with all governors’ budgets, to what they wanted," said Fred Bayles, director of the Boston University Statehouse Program. "Romney’s attempt at vetoing or adding language to the final document were all blocked, with the exception of a few vetoes he issued toward the end of his term when the Legislature was away."
We believe the measure that best fits Romney’s no-frills claim is to use raw dollars -- and by that measure, spending rose by an average of about 5 percent per year during Romney’s term. We also should note that many of Romney’s efforts to shape the budget were summarily rejected by the Democratic legislature, so claiming full credit for any budgetary trends on his watch is a stretch. On balance, we rate Romney’s claim False.
CBN News, "Romney Courts Evangelical Vote at Liberty U." (includes video link), May 14, 2012
Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, home page for the Budget Browser, accessed May 18, 2012
Email interview with Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, May 17, 2012
Email interview with Fred Bayles, director of the Boston University Statehouse Program, May 17, 2012
Email interview with Jeffrey M. Berry, political scientist at Tufts University, May 17, 2012
Email interview with Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, May 17, 2012
Email interview with Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, May 17, 2012
Interview with Andrew C. Bagley, diirector of research and public affairs for the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, May 17, 2012
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