Election finance law hits new snag

Birmingham says statute flawed

By Michael Rezendes, Globe Staff, 4/28/2000

n a blow to campaign finance reform, Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham yesterday signaled the Senate may join the House in seeking to weaken the Clean Elections Law, which was approved by voters to limit the role of special-interest money in state elections.

''I don't think the law as written is perfect. I'm not sure that we have a solution as we stand here now,'' Birmingham said.

In his first public comments on the House's attempts to weaken campaign finance and ethics laws, Birmingham also said he believes Senate members have ''little appetite'' for going along with a House plan to limit financial reporting requirements for lobbyists.

And he said that he and many other Senate members are still trying to sort out the details of a measure that could limit public access to government documents used by officials to defend lawsuits filed against the state.

Birmingham, who spoke with the Globe before yesterday's Senate session, said he has yet to discuss the Clean Elections Law with Senate members. But his personal views are considered crucial because the full Senate often follows his lead and because Birmingham was behind an unsuccessful measure that the law's supporters said would have gutted it last year.

Ken White, executive director of Common Cause/Massachusetts, agreed that the Clean Elections Law is not perfect but said its flaws are addressed in legislation written by the nonpartisan Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

''We can move forward with the technical amendments proposed by the Office of Campaign Finance and adopted in a bill now before the House and Senate, but we should not be making wholesale changes to this law now,'' he said.

Governor Paul Cellucci has said he would veto legislation to weaken the Clean Elections Law and the state's financial reporting requirements for lobbyists if the measures reach his desk in the form approved by the House.

In addition, Cellucci and supporters of the Clean Elections Law have said they were angered not only by the substance of the House's changes to the law - which would require a feasibility study and final approval by the Legislature - but also by the lack of debate or a rollcall vote on a measure approved in the early morning hours of an all-night session.

''The people of Massachusetts who voted for clean elections have a right to know whether their legislators voted for or against gutting the law, but there's no record of it because there was no roll call,'' Cellucci said.

Moreover, White said the House's action on clean elections, lobbying, and public access to state records - adopted as riders to the House's $21.9 billion budget - should never have been considered as emergency amendments to the state's spending plan.

The Clean Elections Law was approved by voters in 1998 by a nearly 2-1 ratio. It establishes a voluntary campaign finance system that allows candidates who agree to stringent campaign spending limits to receive public funds for elections.

Sources say House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran is seeking to have the law changed so that it would cover only candidates for statewide office. Many House and Senate incumbents object to the law because it would provide public campaign funding to potential challengers.

At the same time, sources said that Birmingham, considered a likely candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, will try to renew his effort to change the law to allow candidates to raise unlimited private financing until six months before an election and still be eligible for public funding.

Frank Phillips of the Globe Staff contributed to this article.