BOSTON — MASSACHUSETTS' ruling Democrats are readying for next year's governor's race in an atmosphere of public outrage over the handling of the state's fiscal crisis. This year's state budget deficit is projected at $800 million. Last week state House Speaker George Keverian tried to ram through a $1 billion tax increase package. But it was soundly rejected by lawmakers whose phones rang off the hook with calls from irate constituents. The House and Senate are now working up separate packages to cut spending by $300 million to $350 million.
The Bay State is possibly the most lopsidedly Democratic state outside the South. Three-quarters of the legislative seats are Democratic. But voters here are angry. So angry in fact, that in an October poll by Boston's WNEV-TV, 32 percent of those queried said they would vote for a Republican gubernatorial candidate next year. Only 26 percent said they would vote for a Democrat.
``The Republicans are within striking distance,'' says Barbara Burrell, a Boston University political science professor. ``The Democratic candidates are weak and vulnerable.'' But she cautions that Democrats still possess overwhelming advantages here.
The Democratic candidates so far are Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy, former Attorney General and Lt. Gov. Francis Bellotti, and state Rep. John Flood of Canton. Boston University president John Silber may also throw his hat in the ring, and there is speculation US Rep. Joseph Kennedy II will enter the race. Ms. Murphy and Mr. Bellotti are considered the front-runners because of their well-organized and -financed campaigns. In a recent private poll leaked to the press, Bellotti led the two Republican front-runners by 6 to 13 percentage points, while Murphy led by 11 to 12 points. Flood trailed the Republicans by 4 to 11 points.
The state's fiscal health will be a dominant issue in the Democratic campaign. Mr. Flood, a moderate in a very liberal state party, claims the high ground as the Democrat who warned in 1987 and '88 that the state was headed for trouble.
On Dec. 11 Flood, who opposes a tax increase, released a plan to add $150 million in cuts to the House package of $300 million. The cuts include trimming the number of state employees by 10 percent and selective cuts in optional Medicaid coverage.
Flood criticizes both Murphy and Bellotti as johnny-come-latelys on the issue of spending cuts. ``I've read [their] positions and all they are are rewrites of what I've already said,'' he says.
Murphy supporters respond that during Mr. Dukakis's presidential campaign, she warned the governor that the state budget was heading dangerously into the red.
Murphy's budget plan calls for ``controlling the growth of state government to 5 percent per year. Then there would be no need for new taxes,'' says her campaign manager, Mark Longabaugh. She would also require that managers submit budgets that achieve 10 percent savings over the previous year. They would then receive 5 percent back for ``program initiatives.'' Murphy is in a tough spot. As lieutenant governor, she risks being tarred with the Dukakis administration's perceived failings. But her campaign staff believes it can ``make an asset of her public service and record,'' Mr. Longabaugh says.
Bellotti says proposals for cutting spending don't address the real problem, which he says is systemic. ``This is the best opportunity in years to stand back and take a look at government and the services it offers,'' he says. Included in Bellotti's ``laundry list'' of reforms are tightening standards for special-education programs; trimming back on Medicaid benefits; cutting mass-transit subsidies; and reviewing the $2.5 billion plan for secondary treatment of Boston Harbor water. He also opposes a tax increase.
Abortion may also be an important issue. Murphy and Bellotti are both pro-choice, while Flood takes an anti-abortion stand.
The Democrats hold party caucuses in February, at which 4,000 of about 5,000 delegates to the June convention will be chosen. While endorsement at the state convention can be important, any candidate getting at least 15 percent of convention votes will still be eligible to get on the ballot for the September primary.