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A new Romney

HALFWAY THROUGH his first term in office, Governor Romney is already starting to think about his legacy.

That is one way to explain his surprisingly ambitious agenda, detailed in his State of the State address last night. A small-government reformer who came into office pledging to bring cold-eyed management to the public sector, Romney last night sounded at times like a New Deal Democrat in a business suit.

He said he wanted Massachusetts to be the first state in the nation to offer universal health care and proposed a sweeping new phase of education reform, including a longer school day and raises for the best teachers. He pledged to eliminate the racial gap in school achievement, to expand work force training, and to eliminate waiting lists for classes in English as a second language.

And Romney reached out to the Democratic leadership to help him achieve these goals. After two years of antagonizing the Legislature and mounting a starkly unsuccessful campaign to unseat Democrats in last fall's election, Romney last night embraced the new House speaker, Sal DiMasi, and the relatively new Senate president, Robert Travaglini, saying "we share a common vision."

Of course, Romney is not the first Republican reform governor to learn that it is better to reconcile with the Legislature than to battle it. And despite all Romney's new proposals, the flinty businessman was stll visible. He reiterated his determination to cut the income tax and pledged to impose tougher work requirements for welfare recipients.

Romney may be looking to rack up accomplishments, but he'd be the first to agree he can't rest yet. For one thing, the state is not out of fiscal danger. Although Romney claimed that "Massachusetts is back" last night, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation pegs the state's ongoing structural deficit at more than $600 million. New cost pressures include an anticipated Supreme Judicial Court mandate to upgrade education in poor communities and threatened lawsuits to force the state to deliver on mass transit improvements negotiated as part of the Big Dig.

Romney's by-now familiar line that improving education is the "civil rights issue of our generation" echoes President Bush, who says poor and minority students have been victimized by "the soft bigotry of low expectations." But closing the achievement gap will not be cost-free. Romney's plan to pay for his initiatives by closing corporate tax loopholes and taking over the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority doesn't begin to cover the tab. And the "giant steps" he claims on affordable housing are more like toes in the water.

Still, it is good to see Romney engaged in being governor. If he wishes to dispel the notion that he only has eyes for national office, the activist agenda he outlined last night is a good place to start. 

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