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Romney balks at aide's remarks about needy

Governor Mitt Romney yesterday distanced himself from a recent remark by his budget chief that "the ratio between givers and takers" of social services in the Commonwealth is out of whack, fueling the state's fiscal woes.

Eric Kriss's comment, in a speech he delivered last week to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce that concentrated on the state's construction budget, has enraged many Democratic legislators and social services advocates, who say it indicates a lack of understanding of the state's health and education programs and a callousness toward its neediest citizens.

After speaking at a State House ceremony honoring employers who provide jobs to people with disabilities, Romney declined to respond to Kriss's comments directly, saying he hadn't heard them. But he did promise that his administration is "not going to change the responsibility of government to meet the needs of our citizens and fulfill its promise."

"I do recognize that particularly as our population ages, there will be many more people who will be beneficiaries of state and federal programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. Many of those individuals have placed funds into those programs in the past and will be receiving back funds they placed in," Romney said. "That's a feature that we have to recognize in our budgeting priorities and the work we do."

In his speech Kriss, the secretary of administration and finance, made a distinction between "those who contribute through taxes and those who receive government benefits."

"Of course, all of us receive some benefits -- like the roads and rails that brought us all here this morning. But we all know that some -- most in this room probably -- are net contributors, while others are net beneficiaries. The ratio between givers and takers turns out to be a critical variable of government," said Kriss, who was not available yesterday to elaborate on his remarks.

"What ratio is sustainable?" Kriss asked. He noted that when President Lyndon Johnson launched his Great Society programs in the 1960s, the "sustainable" ratio of givers to takers was thought to be 9 to 1 -- that is, 90 percent of the population should pay taxes to help the bottom 10 percent rise up by receiving government services.

"Forty years later, our ratio at the state level is more like 3 to 1 -- 75 percent net contributors and 25 percent net recipients -- and edging towards 2 to 1," Kriss said, adding later: "And the trends are unsettling."

His comments came as the Commonwealth faces a projected budget shortfall for fiscal year 2005 of $2 billion, with the Romney administration ruling out a broad-based tax increase. In the days since the speech, many social services advocates have said they were deeply unsettled by Kriss's comments. John McDonough, executive director of Health Care for All, described them as "morally offensive."

"It feels like this is a conscious attempt to construct a new rationalization for a new round of extreme cuts to health and human services for needy folks in the Commonwealth," McDonough said. "Is the secretary speaking for himself, or is he speaking for the governor and the administration?"

State Senator Richard T. Moore, who chairs the Committee on Health Care, accused Kriss of "blaming the victim." "Comments such as these are disingenuous and divisive and do nothing to build needed consensus for improving health care or the state's economy," Moore said on Monday before a committee hearing.

He pointed out that nearly half the state's 913,000 Medicaid recipients are children, and that the rest make financial contributions to society through sales taxes and other fees. Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said Kriss is right to point out that the state has "taken on a greater role in dealing with the social and educational needs of the citizenry." But he described his choice of words as "unfortunate."

Widmer also faulted Kriss -- and the administration -- for taking taxes off the table in negotiations over the budget. "The implication of Kriss's remarks is that this is not sustainable and therefore we have to reevaluate services, and that misses half of the equation," Widmer said.

Scott S. Greenberger can be reached at greenberger@globe.com.

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