Celebrating Romney’s true role

April 18, 2011

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LAST WEEK, as they celebrated the fifth birthday of the state’s universal health care law, Democrats offered crocodile congratulations to Mitt Romney for his role in making the landmark statute a reality. Because that law served as the model for ObamaCare, it has become anathema to conservatives — and thus a liability for Romney as he makes his second bid for the White House.

Still, conservatives might be more favorably disposed if they understood the part Romney played in warding off various schemes feared by business. After an Urban Institute study recommended an individual mandate, Romney made that the core of his plan. That was a way of sidestepping the approach many Democrats favored: a payroll tax of 5 to 7 percent on businesses that did not offer health coverage. That idea, the subject of a planned ballot question, became the preferred approach of then-House speaker Sal DiMasi. Businesses worried, and with good reason, about the costs such a plan would impose.

DiMasi, however, remained adamant about putting much of the responsibility on business, something both Romney and then-Senate president Robert Travaglini opposed. At one point, DiMasi talked of forcing firms to pay $800 to $1,000 per uncovered employee.

The compromise that finally broke the long stalemate was based on an individual mandate, but called for companies without coverage to pay $295 per worker per year. That was essentially the Romney plan, but with enough of a business contribution to let DiMasi save face. In a move that angered DiMasi, Romney signed the bill, but vetoed the business levy. The Legislature overrode his veto, reimposing the fee.

All in all, then, the role Romney played was of a governor sensitive to business concerns and worried about the state’s business climate. Now, conservatives have come to view that individual mandate as an intolerable imposition on personal liberty, rather than an insistence on personal responsibility. In no small part that’s because such a mandate also plays a central role in Obama’s health care plan. But if they weren’t hyperventilating about the national law, they might come to recognize that the role Romney played on the state level was skillful, creative, and business-friendly.