Decisions on election law irk both sides

By Michael Rezendes, Globe Staff, 11/16/99

ith anger rising over the campaign-finance law approved by voters, mangled by the Legislature, and now sitting on Governor Paul Cellucci's desk, supporters and opponents believe many of the law's loftiest goals - and most serious shortcomings - are being lost in the fray.

Opponents say voters have been deprived of a valid debate on the issue since last year's ''clean elections campaign,'' when the groups supporting limits on campaign expenditures outspent the opposition by nearly 20-1 on a ballot question and used rhetoric implying that opponents favored dirty campaigns.

''They had overwhelming resources and waged an overwhelmingly deceptive campaign,'' said Stephen Roop, a Democrat who led the opposition to Question 2. ''It just wasn't a fair fight.''

On the other hand, supporters say the Legislature's earlier attempt to weaken the law's provisions and Cellucci's decision to veto $10 million for the law are an affront to voters who decided overwhelmingly to limit special interest money in campaigns.

''The overall intent is to reduce the influence of big money in politics and level the playing field for incumbents and challengers,'' said David Donnelly, director of Mass Voters for Clean Elections. ''What the Legislature did eviscerates that.''

That may be true. But detractors say the fabled rule of unintended consequences might prevail if Cellucci and the Legislature were to let the law stand because it makes it harder - not easier - for challengers to defeat incumbents by limiting what they can spend.

In essence, the campaign-finance ballot question approved by voters would provide public funding for up to 80 percent of a campaign to candidates who agree to limit their acceptance of campaign contributions and their spending. For example, candidates for attorney general who choose to receive public funds could spend no more than $450,000 in a primary election.

But $450,000 may not be enough for a challenger to make his or her case. Critics note that former State Senator Lois Pines and Middlesex District Attorney Thomas Reilly, the eventual winner, together spent nearly $3.8 million on TV and radio advertising alone in their Democratic primary battle for the attorney general's office.

''These people are living on Mars if they think a challenger can break through with the kind of money provided for in the law,'' said Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman, who worked for Pines in the attorney general's race.

Other critics say the law not only makes it more difficult for challengers to win, it will make it easier for them to run - encouraging frivolous candidates and significantly raising the estimated $56 million cost of the law over a four-year election cycle.

For instance, the law says that a candidate for a seat in the House of Representatives need raise only 200 contributions of $5 each to be eligible for $24,000 in public funds for the primary and general campaigns.

Meanwhile, Cellucci's decision to veto money for the law is based in large part on a pending US Supreme Court case that will decide whether Missouri can continue to limit individual campaign contributions to $1,075 a year.

Although many observers say the court is likely to ease federal and state limits on campaign contributions - or eliminate them altogether as a violation of free speech - Donnelly believes the Massachusetts law will remain standing because the $100 overall limit on campaign contributions is voluntary.

But House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, who dislikes the new law, said a Supreme Court decision raising or invalidating mandatory limits on campaign contributions could cripple the campaign-finance law here by vastly increasing the cost of matching privately funded campaigns with public dollars.

Finneran also said that, overall, the idea that limits on campaign contributions unfairly constrain free speech is at the heart of much of the opposition to the Massachusetts financing law.

''To assume that a campaign donation is made or received with corrupt intent is insulting to many of us in public office and to citizens who might want to make a contribution to a candidate because they're aligned with them on the issues,'' he said.