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When Romney Liked High Gas Prices

As he campaigns for president, Mitt Romney is ratcheting up his attacks on Barack Obama over high gas prices, putting the issue at the center of his economic message. He is calling for Obama to fire his Energy secretary, EPA administrator, and Interior secretary, saying they are to blame for high prices at the pump. “No question in my mind that these—I call them the gas-hike trio—that those three are on a mission to drive up the price of gasoline and all energy so that they can finally get their solar and their wind to be more price-competitive. That’s what they want to do,” Romney said on Monday.

Curiously overlooked, though, is just what a shift this rhetoric is from the approach that Romney took on the issue of gas prices while governor of Massachusetts. Befitting his profile as a moderate Republican who cared about the environment, Governor Romney responded to price spikes by describing them as the natural result of global market pressures and by calling for increases in fuel efficiency—the same approach that he now derides Obama for taking as president. 

At moments, Romney went so far as to make high gas prices out to be a welcome reality for the foreseeable future, one that people needed to learn to live with. When lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, a fellow Republican, called for suspending the state’s 23.5 cent gas tax during a price spike in May 2006, Romney rejected the idea, saying it would only further drive up gasoline consumption. “I don’t think that now is the time, and I’m not sure there will be the right time, for us to encourage the use of more gasoline,” Romney said, according to the Quincy Patriot Ledger’s report at the time. “I’m very much in favor of people recognizing that these high gasoline prices are probably here to stay.”

Romney’s response to high gas prices while governor fit into his broader effort to promote “smart growth” policies in Massachusetts—a focus that is rare among Republican leaders but that he took up with alacrity. After taking office in 2003, he combined the state’s transportation, environment, and housing departments into a single “Office for Commonwealth Development” under the command of Doug Foy, a prominent local environmentalist who was known to commute to work 20 miles by bike. Together, Romney and Foy pushed for legislation to channel new development into existing communities, thereby reducing the need for new road construction and the car dependence of Massachusetts residents. They put forward a sweeping “Climate Protection Plan” in 2004, which included, among many other things, calls for more car-pooling, public transit and tax breaks for motorists who bought hybrid vehicles. Clean energy was the future, Romney declared at a conference in 2005: “This is an industry that is going to be explosive in its growth in the next decade.” 

Romney and Foy also proposed slashing the number of SUVs in the state vehicle fleet. As one administration veteran told me this week: “It was helpful to have gas prices high when we were there because it led [Romney] to think that efficiency was sensible. He talked about that a lot for the state vehicles—that gas costs a lot and we should be driving more efficient vehicles.” 

Andrea Nuciforo, Jr., who at the time was a Democrat serving in the state Senate, recalled how heartened he was by Romney’s staunch support for efforts to reduce fuel consumption. “It was a pleasure to work with him and Doug Foy,” Nuciforo said. “The smart growth initiatives that the governor began in Massachusetts were very progressive … It was, ‘Let’s not have people driving over every hill and dale to get to work. Let’s focus on existing options so they can walk or bike or make a short drive to work.’” As for the tax breaks for hybrids that he and Romney both supported, he said, “We thought it was important to provide some support to promising technologies, given that existing technologies have enjoyed enormous public subsidies in the past—which was certainly true of the traditional automobile.”

James Gomes, who at the time was president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, also praised Romney’s approach. “His administration’s growth planning policy was predicated on the idea that we would discourage automobile use by clustering development, that we would get people out of their cars to that they could either use public transportation on many small local trips or so that they could walk,” he said. 

During the gas price spike following Hurricane Katrina in September 2005, Romney resorted to the tactic adopted by countless other elected executives, including Obama: declaring that his administration would investigate any allegations of price gouging. 

But at other times, he was fearless about pushing policies that would increase prices at the pump. Just a few months into his first term in 2003, his administration pushed for expanding a fee on wholesale fuel deliveries that resulted in a two-cent per-gallon price increase at the pump. The fee went toward a state fund that paid for cleaning spills and leaks at gas stations and had been running low. The board that oversaw the fund had sought approval from Romney’s predecessor, Republican Jane Swift, to double the fee from an effective half-cent per gallon to a full cent per gallon. But when Romney came into office, his administration proposed quintupling the effective rate, to 2.5 cents per gallon. 

The administration’s argument was that the higher increase would put the fund on solid footing for good, recalled Stephen Dodge, associate director of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Petroleum Council, who sat on the board overseeing the fund. But shortly afterward, the administration moved to consolidate the fund, and many other small dedicated accounts, into the state’s general fund to help close a $3 billion state budget deficit. This, Dodge said, undermined the administration’s claim that the increase, which raised $60 million, was merely a fee adjustment and not a bona fide tax hike. “The fee really did become a tax because it wasn’t used for what it was intended for,” Dodge said.

The Romney campaign did not respond to a request for comment. 

The Democratic National Committee recently tried to draw attention to the 2003 fee increase. But oddly, the candidate has not been challenged about his overall approach to high gas prices while governor and its inconsistency with his current attacks on Obama. This surprises some in Massachusetts. Said Gomes: “It’s another instance of Romney saying one thing but having said and done another thing.”

Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at The New Republic.