Thursday, February 27, 2003

The Three R's: reorganization, reform, and Romney. So what to make of Governor Mitt Romney's budget/reorganization plan? Not to cop out, but it strikes me that an instant reaction would be foolhardy. I don't know if it's "bold" (the word of the day in the Globe and the Herald), but it certainly is sprawling, encompassing everything from a drastic repositioning of the state's higher-education system to new Medicaid fees.

At first glance, much of the Romney proposal appears to be a mixed bag. There is, of course, a certain amount of psychic satisfaction in seeing UMass president Bill Bulger squirm as Romney tries to eliminate his job. (Globe coverage here; Herald coverage here.) By most accounts, the former Senate president has done an excellent job in building up UMass. But his high salary ($309,000) and his refusal to testify before a congressional committee about his homicidal brother (understandable on a personal level but incompatible with holding high public office) make him an inviting target.

Still, forcing out Bulger is one thing; doing away with the UMass president's office and decentralizing the state's high-education system is quite another. Is it a good idea? It's too soon to say. The Globe's Joan Vennochi is already calling it "a fraud and an insult," and compares Romney's plan to "setting off pyrotechnics in a low-ceilinged nightclub." Wow. That's, uh, way more than a bit much.

In a considerably more measured column, the Globe's Adrian Walker criticizes Romney's "cynicism" and observes: "Part of the beauty of the assault on Bulger is that his fate -- not education -- becomes the story line." Indeed, the get-Bulger angle is more than enough for the Herald's Peter Gelzinis, who cackles, "The Napoleon of South Boston would appear to be fading away right before our very eyes." (Gelzinis also laments that Bulger's powerful friends may yet save his job.)

But let's be honest. Can anyone really say for certain right now that Romney's higher-ed plan will be good or bad for the state and the students who depend on it?

Or take local aid. Romney proposes both to reform it, so that communities that have not been pulling their fair share will have to cut spending or raise taxes (good), and to cut it by five percent (bad). When Romney promised during his campaign not to cut core essential services, or whatever his slippery phrase was, he apparently didn't count cops, firefighters, and teachers as being essential.

Finally, the Globe today reports a Romney initiative that is so bizarre that I'm wondering if it's really true. According to the article, by Cynthia Roy, the state Department of Public Health will start charging a $50 fee for tuberculosis tests -- and "a $400 fee for those who test positive." Can this be right? A quick perusal of Romney's budget proposal on the state website sheds no light: it merely shows a new line item for tuberculosis testing that would bring in $300,000 in fiscal 2004.

I'm trying to imagine how this would work. Would you have to pay $450 in advance, and then get a $400 rebate if you test negative? ("Congratulations! You've won!") Would you be billed an extra $400 if you test positive?

This is so screamingly insane that I'm going to assume that there's at least a chance that the Globe got it wrong or left something out. But if it's true, then Romney ought to find out who put this in his budget and add him or her to the long list of state employees who are getting laid off.

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