Cellucci lets funds remain for elections

Vetoes change in campaign law; school money cuts cause rancor

By Frank Phillips and Michael Crowley, Globe Staff, 11/17/99

n a surprise move, Governor Paul Cellucci yesterday backed off threats to veto money for a new campaign reform law and struck down language inserted by legislative leaders that some activists say would have gutted the law.

Cellucci said he ultimately decided voters' approval of the law last year must be respected, and OK'd $10 million for public funding of elections.

''To substantially change what the voters have approved would be wrong,'' Cellucci said.

But Beacon Hill sources said the governor's switch was in part driven by an increasingly bitter feud with Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham, which intensified after Birmingham threatened to stall a $45,000 pay raise for Cellucci.

Cellucci's announcement, which jolted Beacon Hill, came as he unveiled 346 vetoes totaling $250 million from the Legislature's $20.9 billion budget.

The vetoes included striking $94 million of $245 million set aside for local education reform money, a move that sparked the anger of school and municipal officials.

''If this is the education governor, let him go get another cause,'' said James A. Caradonio, superintendent for Worcester schools, which stand to lose $2.5 million promised for new textbooks, computers, and building upgrades.

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino called Cellucci's move ''short-sighted'' and charged the state ''is not really serious about improving our schools.''

Cellucci also added an amendment to a $60 million early retirement plan for teachers, calling for a study of how public school systems would replace the retiring teachers. Supporters say Cellucci's language will kill the plan.

Cellucci also vetoed millions in other education programs, including $10.1 million for early childhood education grants and $3 million in kindergarten expansion grants.

In addition, the governor eliminated $10 million for expansion of antismoking programs, $6.5 million in raises for low-paid human services workers, and legislative language that would have halted the phaseout of the capital gains tax.

Hundreds of the vetoes are likely to be overridden before the Legislature adjourns for the year at midnight tonight. It was still not clear yesterday whether the Legislature would reconvene for a special session if it runs out of time to override all the vetoes.

Birmingham said he was ''absolutely speechless'' over the governor's veto of the education reform money, which he called mean-spirited.

Cellucci shot back, calling Birmingham ''a big-spending liberal.''

The Senate voted last week to suspend its rules and return if necessary, but House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran has resisted efforts to extend the session, although he has not ruled out the possibility.

Cellucci's vetoes would chop the budget increase over last year's spending from 7 percent to 3.5 percent.

His switch on the campaign finance law funding created the biggest political stir, because early in the week word leaked out from the administration that the governor had decided to veto the funds because he did not believe in public funding of campaigns.

The ''clean elections'' law, a ballot question passed by 67 percent of voters last year, called for public funds to go to candidates who agree to limit their campaign spending.

At a news conference where he signed the budget, Cellucci said that despite his personal opposition, he concluded a veto of the money that will go toward funding the new law would undercut faith in the initiative petition process.

Cellucci cited his own campaign now underway to use the ballot to cut the state income tax back to 5 percent.

But State House sources said Cellucci has grown irritated at Birmingham, because the Senate leader was threatening to stall the pay raise bill for the governor and other constitutional officers. The bill, which would give Cellucci a roughly 50 percent increase in pay, has passed the House.

''Birmingham is trying to personalize the pay raise issue,'' said one top Democratic source.

The sources suggested Birmingham and Finneran expected Cellucci to jettison the money, which would severely undermine the new system and discourage possible candidates from challenging Beacon Hill incumbents.

Cellucci also vetoed the language slipped in by Birmingham and Finneran that would have permitted incumbents to raise huge amounts of money during most of their terms, then still receive public campaign funds in the final six months of the election cycle. Proponents of the new law said that would have undercut the whole idea.

Birmingham yesterday said he welcomed the governor's decision to keep the $10 million funding in the budget and suggested he did not feel strongly about Cellucci's veto of the language change he and Finneran inserted.

But administration sources said Birmingham had lobbied strongly over the weekend for Cellucci to keep the language changes.

Cellucci aides are convinced the governor has called Birmingham's bluff by sending the changes back to the Legislature with a veto.

Now, Birmingham and Finneran will be forced to take up the clean elections issue again, in full public view, if they seek to override Cellucci.

''He wanted us to quietly sign it the way it came to us from the legislature, but now he is going to have to override it,'' said one source, noting the public rumpus that advocates of the clean elections law have created over the issue.

Birmingham denied he is holding up the governor's pay raise, but he said he is ''troubled'' by Cellucci's veto of a $1 a day pay increase the Legislature included in the budget for poorly paid human service workers.

''I am not tickling him over the pay raise, but it did make me have second thoughts whether it was unseemly to grant the governor a $45,000 pay raise,'' Birmingham said.