Cellucci may veto $10m election fund

Says budget must be trimmed; critics see harm to finance law

By Frank Phillips, Globe Staff, 11/12/99

day after legislative leaders created a loophole in the voter-approved campaign finance law, Governor Paul Cellucci said he is seriously considering vetoing $10 million to publicly fund elections, saying he never supported the idea anyway.

Reformers say striking the money for publicly financed elections will undermine potential candidates' confidence in the new system and further weaken the law, which won overwhelming approval at the ballot last November.

But Cellucci said he is looking for ways to trim the $20.87 billion budget and the elections money may be one of them.

''I don't like using public monies to fund political campaigns,'' Cellucci said.

The governor's comment came just hours after lawmakers placed the budget on his desk yesterday. He plans to announce his vetoes by Tuesday.

''I don't like being the guy who says no, but it's my job to impose fiscal discipline on state government and on the state Legislature,'' Cellucci said.

The remarks represented another potential blow to the new campaign finance law, which has touched off hostility and anxiety in the state's political establishment.

The $10 million would be used as seed money to start the fund for public matching money for the 2002 elections.

This week, House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran and Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham, potential gubernatorial candidates now raising big campaign cash, inserted language into the budget weakening the new law's limits on raising and spending money.

As passed by voters, the law would give public matching funds to statewide candidates if they agree to cap their fund-raising and spending at specific limits - $3 million in the case of candidates for governor, $750,000 for attorney general, and $30,000 for House candidates, for example. The limit would be in effect throughout the four-year election cycle for statewide candidates, and two years for legislative candidates.

But Birmingham and Finneran rewrote it, allowing candidates to raise and spend as much money as they want up until the last six months of an election year. That would especially benefit incumbents, who could raise millions of dollars in the years and months leading up to the election, scaring away challengers.

Cellucci said he had not seen the details of the change and would not comment on whether he would veto it.

''I haven't made any decisions,'' Cellucci said.

After voters approved the ''Clean Elections'' ballot question by a 2-to-1 ratio last November, Cellucci, a longtime opponent of publicly financing campaigns, said he respected the voters' will and would support providing money for the elections.

Yesterday, Cellucci stopped short of saying he would veto the $10 million. But the governor's comments showed what aides said is a strong inclination to veto the funding.

Cellucci questioned why the money needs to be appropriated now, when candidates would not begin drawing upon it until 2002. He also suggested the law could face a constitutional challenge. Supporters of the law argue the state has to start a regular annual outlay of public funds to create confidence in the system and, by the fourth year of appropriation, generate a $56 million pot of money for matching funds.

''Those people who are considering running for office in 2002 will know that the money will be there for them to run,'' said David Donnelly, executive director of Mass Voters For Clean Elections.

Birmingham and Finneran have argued that their legislative colleagues need to raise and spend donations regularly to pay for district offices, staffing, and other expenses, such as sending out newsletters and other mailings.

The new campaign reform law and the sweeping changes it presents has touched off deep anxiety within the state's political establishment.

Donnelly also denounced the rewriting of the law as ''unconscionable'' and said it would ''open the floodgates for special interests to dominate elections.''

It was also sharply criticized by two Democratic lawmakers, Jay R. Kaufman of Lexington and Douglas W. Petersen of Marblehead, who cited the changes to the law as reasons why they voted against the budget on the House floor Wednesday. They were the only two House members to vote no.

Also yesterday, the Massachusetts Money and Politics Project, which monitors campaign finance issues, released an analysis of nonelection-year spending by legislators that shows most spending is related to promoting the lawmakers' political stature and solidifying their incumbency advantage.

The lowest category of spending is for staff and rent for district offices.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.