BOSTON — As he concluded his tenure as budget chief in Massachusetts, Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker wrote a memo labeling Big Dig spending “simply amazing,” warning that it would force “draconian” cuts to other road and bridge projects — and recommending they be taken only after his boss was re-elected in 1998.
The three-page memo appears to legitimize Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick’s complaints in the current campaign about how Baker handled transportation spending in his old job.
Patrick contends Baker and his fellow Republicans concealed the true cost of the nearly $15 billion Big Dig project during the 16 years they ruled Beacon Hill before Patrick took office in 2007.
More specifically, Patrick says the transportation financing plans Baker and his successors used not only pushed higher costs into the future, but starved other road and bridge projects.
Baker has rebuffed the criticism by alternately saying the Big Dig’s cost did not rise during his tenure, and that he was just one of a number of people responsible for transportation spending. He also notes Patrick is using the same financing mechanism – borrowing against future federal funds – for part of his own road and bridge repair program.
Yet, in the 1998 memo, Baker mimics some of Patrick’s own complaints.
“The financing plan for transportation spending between FY 1999 and FY 2003 is starting to seem surreal,” Baker writes in the memo, obtained Sunday by The Associated Press.
The state’s then-administration and finance secretary warns there is at least a $100 million deficit in the road and bridge construction budget during the first year alone, yet it “is more like” $350 million annually.
Baker blames peak construction at the Big Dig, which buried an elevated highway in a series of tunnels beneath downtown Boston, writing, “Its rate of spending is simply amazing.” At the time, it was the most expensive public works project in the country and required a growing state contribution.
He added that instead of preparing for federal highway spending cuts, the state deferred much of its spending on road and bridge projects outside the Big Dig to three years’ worth of future budgets, between 1999 and 2001.
Under a section labeled “Remedies,” Baker writes, “At some point, someone is going to have to take draconian measures to deal with the transportation spending plan.”
Writing Aug. 26, 1998, more than two months before his boss, then-Gov. Paul Cellucci, was up for re-election, Baker lists four remedial steps for the governor to propose “after Nov. 5th” – Election Day in 1998.
They include reducing the state’s non-Big Dig transportation construction program from $400 million to $200 million, as well as making a one-time, $300 million withdrawal from the state’s rainy-day fund.
Throughout the current campaign, Baker has blasted Patrick for tapping the same fund to balance the state budget before the national recession began, saying: “He started spending the rainy day fund before it started raining.”
Speaking to WBUR on Monday, Patrick noted that Baker has often criticized his administration’s fiscal management.
“We’ve been earning AA bond ratings and he’s been writing memos to the file hiding critically important information from the public,” Patrick said.
Patrick and Baker have been running neck-and-neck in recent months. A poll in the Boston Sunday Globe showed the two about even, with Patrick at 43 percent and Baker at 39 percent – just within the poll’s 4.3 percentage point margin of error.
Patrick campaign manager Sydney Asbury said the memo shows Republican Big Dig financing plans siphoned money from road and bridge projects elsewhere in the state.
She added in a statement: “Now it appears that despite his claims of fiscal responsibility, Charlie Baker left state government with a deficit of hundreds of millions. It also appears that he knew his finance plan was over budget and suggested that we should hide these problems from taxpayers for political purposes.”
Baker spokeswoman Amy Goodrich said the memo shows fiscal prudence by Baker.
“As budget chief, Charlie constantly sounded the alarm about spending issues in agencies throughout state government as he did here about the statewide road and bridge program,” she said in a statement.
Goodrich added: “It’s disturbing Gov. Patrick is ignoring similar warnings from budget experts about the $3 billion deficit the state faces and seems to be the only person in the state who continues to deny the existence of that deficit.”
Amy Birmingham, campaign spokeswoman for independent candidate Timothy Cahill, said in a statement that Baker’s memo “shows that he misled the public on the deficit created by the Big Dig for political reasons.”
“It is another example of how the political parties will stick together to the end, right or wrong, even if it means disregarding their duty to the Commonwealth,” Birmingham said.
Baker wrote the memo as he concluded an eight-year stint in state government, during which he served as human service secretary and budget chief for Cellucci and his predecessor, Republican Gov. William F. Weld.
Baker left public service to enter the private sector, taking a job as president of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.
He held that post for the ensuing decade, and he has used his record there – including transforming the company from the brink of receivership to a top-ranked customer service organization – as the underpinning for his gubernatorial campaign.