Mitt Romney this week accused President Obama of kowtowing to “big labor’’ and slammed Rick Santorum, one of his challengers for the Republican presidential nomination, as “labor’s favorite senator.’’ But as governor of Massachusetts, Romney fiercely protected a costly and controversial perk for police officers after seeking and receiving the endorsement of the politically influential police unions.
Even as he pushed to slash aid to cities and towns and programs for the blind and raised college tuition, he fully funded a $45 million program that awarded salary bonuses to officers who earned advanced degrees.
The program, known as the Quinn bill, was under attack at the time by many taxpayer groups after a 2001 Board of Higher Education study called it an ineffective “cash cow’’ for police.
But when Romney was running for governor in 2002, he was steadfast in his support of the program. As a candidate, he showed up to the office of the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation and asked for the union’s endorsement, said Thomas Nolan, a retired lieutenant who was then vice president of the federation. “There was a firm understanding that the quid pro quo would be his agreeing to allow our Quinn bill benefits to remain intact,’’ he said. “We felt assured that once he was elected, our benefits would be intact for four years and guess what? We got what we wanted.’’
Romney’s campaign declined to answer specific questions about the Quinn bill.
“Mitt Romney has a high regard for the men and women who work in law enforcement, and he appreciates the work that they do,’’ Andrea Saul, a campaign spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
The campaign also sent a long list of steps Romney took as governor to stand up to labor groups. For instance, he helped stop public employee unions from using state resources to solicit funds for their political action committees, and he tried to exempt small public construction projects from the state’s prevailing wage law.
But in 2003, Romney’s staunch defense of the Quinn bill surprised budget watchdogs, who had been fighting for changes in the program, which gave officers a 10 percent to 25 percent salary boost depending on their level of education.
“I believe we get our money’s worth and that we need law enforcement officers with higher education and training,’’ Romney told the Associated Press in February 2003 when he proposed a series of cuts to plug a $3.2 billion budget deficit.
Later that year, critics of the Quinn bill almost got their way when the Democratic Legislature drafted a bill that would have reined in the cost of the program. But Romney refused to sign it, saying that some of the changes would have been unfair to certain police officers.
“He’d certainly portrayed himself as a reformer,’’ said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed watchdog group. “So there was a real contradiction between what he had put forward and then the fact that he didn’t sign off on this very hard-earned reform.’’
Under Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, the state eventually stopped funding its share of the Quinn bill for local departments, though State Police still receive the benefit. The Supreme Judicial Court is weighing whether cities and towns, who pay for half of the program, should be responsible for the portion once paid by the state.
In recent days Romney has criticized Obama for his support of the United Auto Workers and pounced on votes Santorum took in the Senate against national right-to-work legislation and in support of the Davis-Bacon Act, requiring government contractors to pay the prevailing wage.
Opponents are fighting back. Yesterday, the Democratic National Committee e-mailed reporters a snapshot of Romney’s website in 2002 in which he told union members he would push for increases in the minimum wage tied to inflation.
It was natural for Romney to seek the endorsement of police unions in 2002, said David Tuerck, executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University, a conservative free-market think tank that has been critical of the Quinn bill. “It’s very tempting for Republican candidates to tell police unions what they want to hear because police unions are more inclined to be socially conservative,’’ Tuerck said. “They think that’s a union constituent that will be supportive to them, provided that they support police details and the Quinn bill.’’
George DiBlasi, former executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said there were many reasons the organization, an advocacy group, endorsed Romney in 2002. Support for the Quinn bill was important, but not the only factor, he said. “We liked him,’’ DiBlasi said. “We thought he was a man of integrity. He was a clean living guy. He was for law enforcement, law and order.’’
DiBlasi said he believes that Romney and his opponent at the time, Shannon O’Brien, told the organization they would support the program. “If they said, ‘Hey listen, we’re going to take the Quinn bill away from you,’ what do you think would have happened?’’ DiBlasi said. “I’m sure they both endorsed it.’’
John Coflesky - former president of the State Police Association of Massachusetts, which represents state troopers - said despite criticism of the program at the time, the union did not feel the Quinn bill was threatened. The union’s executive board decided to back Romney “because we felt he was a better candidate,’’ Coflesky said. “We supported the best candidates that we thought would be for policing.’’
Coflesky said Romney “stood by labor’’ when changes were proposed to the Quinn benefits.
In 2005, the governor and the union clashed over contract talks that became so bitter, some troopers talked of embarrassing Romney if he ran for president. Eventually, the administration offered State Police a contract that would boost troopers’ pay up to 19 percent over four years, one of the most generous offers he made to any union.