Coalition blasts governor, demands election funding

By Frank Phillips, Globe Staff, and Michael Crowley, Globe Correspondent, 11/13/99

xpressing outrage over attempts by Governor Paul Cellucci and legislative leaders to weaken the state's campaign-finance reform law, a coalition of groups across the political spectrum yesterday demanded that the state set aside $10 million for public funding of political races.

Cellucci, urging fiscal caution, threatened on Thursday to veto the $10 million, which is seed money to establish the fund passed by voter initiative last year. That veto threat came after legislative leaders earlier in the week slipped in an amendment allowing political figures to raise large amounts of money in nonelection years and still qualify for public funds.

But in a letter to Cellucci, a long roster of political groups, including Common Cause of Massachusetts and the League of Women Voters, urged the governor and the Legislature to adhere to the law as passed by the voters.

''The people of Massachusetts want our state to take the lead in campaign finance reform,'' the letter said. ''You can provide that leadership.''

The letter charged that the amendment passed by the Legislature this week would unfairly allow incumbent officeholders to raise huge amounts of special-interest funds in nonelection years and then declare themselves eligible for public funding six months before the election.

Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham and House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran have argued that legislators must be allowed to raise private funds in nonelection years to help cover the costs of their district offices.

Cellucci, speaking on Thursday, gave no signal on whether he would sign the amendment. He shocked many public-interest groups by suggesting he might veto the $10 million pool of money for campaigns, saying he opposes taxpayer funding of campaigns. He also argued that the funds will not be needed until the 2002 elections and that similar campaign finance laws are under court challenge.

The moves by the governor and the Legislature riled public-interest groups, who said officials were coming together to block a ''clean election'' system that would give their opponents a fair chance.

The so-called Clean Elections Law, which will cost $56 million to pay for the campaigns of candidates for the Legislature and statewide offices, has shaken the state's political establishment since the measure was approved by voters in 1998.

''This is an example of where the desire to do something good has produced something which will be far worse than what they are trying to cure,'' said Michael Goldman, a Democratic political consultant. ''What the coalition was trying to produce was a Miss America law, but they ended up with a political Frankenstein monster.''

Cellucci is spending the weekend reviewing the $20.87 billion spending plan the Legislature sent him early Thursday. Administration sources said the governor has set a goal of cutting nearly $400 million. Aides to the governor yesterday confirmed that Cellucci will make a decision on vetoes, including the Clean Election funding, by Monday and give them to the Legislature late Tuesday.

Critics like Goldman and others say the system, which is voluntary, is unworkable and unrealistic because it sets such low ceilings on spending for those who agree to accept public funds. To receive the money, the candidates must raise matching funds in donations no greater than $100.

''The only thing that this achieved was increasing substantially the amount of time that candidates and elected officials have to spend on fund-raising,'' said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic political consultant. ''It did not decrease the cost of a campaign.''

Marsh said any challengers to incumbents need to spend well above the limits the law sets for each office if they want to mount a serious threat.

''If you're a challenger and you're not running against a weakened incumbent, then what you really need to do is earn and buy name recognition,'' Marsh said. ''And the level they've set in most cases is not going to let a challenger do that.''

The coalition, which includes Mass Voters for Clean Elections and the state chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons, are planning to rally at the State House on Monday.

The group picked up support from one of Cellucci's strongest political allies, Barbara Anderson, the state's leading tax-cut crusader, who yesterday denounced the Legislature's proposed changes in the law.

''The voters voted for this so-called Clean Election law; therefore, the Legislature should honor that,'' Anderson said. ''He should veto the outrageous change in the law.''

Anderson, who generally opposes public financing of campaigns, said she supports the law simply because it was passed by the voters. She stopped short of calling on Cellucci to leave the $10 million in the budget.

But Anderson said she agreed with campaign-finance reform advocates who say by allowing incumbents to raise private funds for most of their term, the intent of the law is gutted.

''They are making it the antithesis of what it was meant to be by giving inbcumbents advantage over challengers,'' Anderson said.

A recent study by campaign-finance reform activists indicates that incumbents in the Massachusetts Legislature rarely face challengers and that when they do, they handily outspend and soundly defeat them.

One in five state legislative races was contested in 1998, according to the Massachusetts Money and Politics Project. Only South Carolina had a lower percentage of contested legislative races last year.

And even contested races cause little trouble for incumbents, who typically win with 65 percent or more of the vote. Incumbents also dramatically outspend their challengers, by a 2-to-1 ratio in the House and 5-to-1 in the Senate.

George Pillsbury, director of the Money and Politics Project, said the dominance of the Democratic Party in Massachusetts partly explained why more incumbents do not face challenges. But he said the Clean Elections Law, as originally passed by voters, would help challengers overcome the advantages enjoyed by incumbents with high-name recognition and big war chests.

''It's not about having the most money; it's about having enough to mount a serious campaign,'' Pillsbury said.