House plan would limit candidate financing

Legislature races may get no funds

By Frank Phillips, Globe Staff, 4/25/2000

espite an eruption over their move to halt the Clean Elections Law during a recent budget debate, House leaders are quietly considering removing another key overhaul - public financing for legislative candidates.

Well-placed House sources say Speaker Thomas M. Finneran and his leadership team face pressure from legislators to rewrite the voter-approved law and save them from facing publicly financed challengers in 2002.

The leaders are looking to push a plan, one of several options, that would limit Clean Elections to apply only to races for governor and other statewide offices, and argue the law needs to be phased in.

The behind-the-scenes maneuvering occurs even as outrage swirls around Finneran about the behavior of some House members during the budget process, when they weakened ethics laws, fell asleep, had other people cast votes for them, and drank alcohol.

An informed source said that several lawmakers were given a case of beer Thursday night by the Ad Club of Boston, which was holding a beer and wine tasting event on the second floor. The lawmakers took the beer back to a committee room and drank it. Others drank at the reception.

Though it appears few lawmakers were drinking during Thursday's all-night session, reports of rowdy ''Animal House'' behavior have subjected the House to derision and worsened its image. Yesterday, hundreds of activists crowded outside Governor Paul Cellucci's office to protest gun control laws, chanting ''Toga! Toga! Toga!'' and singing ''99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.''

Today, at a House caucus, Finneran will face a band of legislators who want to rewrite House rules to ban post-midnight House sessions and require a two-thirds vote - instead of a majority - to operate after 10 p.m. The group also wants to keep nonbudget measures, such as lobbying laws, from being taken up during the budget debate.

Finneran called the caucus to discuss House members' deportment and address the issues that erupted after debate of the $21.8 billion spending plan.

The House leaders' plan to further defang the Clean Elections Law would set off a backlash from campaign finance reform leaders, who put the issue on the 1998 ballot. It was proposed as a way of leveling the playing field for incumbents, who can usually easily raise funds from Beacon Hill interests, and challengers, who often struggle to find campaign cash.

It was approved overwhelmingly by voters in 1998.

Reached by the Globe yesterday, reform activists denounced the proposal to exempt legislative candidates as an ''outrageous'' violation of the public's trust.

''We would be outraged,'' said David Donnelly. ''It would violate the public trust because the public wants all elections cleaned up, not just at the statewide level. It's something we wouldn't stand for.''

The House has already come under fire for approving a budget amendment in the dead of night, without a roll call, which would suspend the Clean Elections Law until the Office of Campaign and Political Finance issued a report later this year on its finanical impact. Both the Senate and House would have to approve the report before the law could take effect.

Beacon Hill lawmakers strongly oppose the campaign finance law - approved by voters in 1998 - in part because it would provide public funds to their challengers, beginning in the 2002 elections.

House leaders' consideration of the plan to remove legislative candidates from Clean Elections provides an alternative route for lawmakers to undo part of the law in case the Senate does not go along with the budget amendment, which called for its suspension until a report is complete.

Another option under discussion is a measure to make it harder for challengers by raising the threshold on the amount of donations that a legislative candidate must raise from private funds to qualify for public money.

The House has also been criticized for passing a measure during the budget that would ease requirements that lobbyists disclose their expenses.

Finneran is grappling with revelations that lawmakers were absent from the chamber when their votes were recorded on roll calls - a violation of House rules. The speaker has acknowledged he has at times ordered court officers to vote for members who are in meetings on official business in order not to disrupt their work.

But sources have said that court officers were seen punching roll call buttons for members during the all-night session in which most of more than 1,400 amendments were considered in early morning hours. One legislator, Representative Kevin J. Murphy, a Lowell Democrat, left the budget session several hours before it ended, but was recorded on three roll calls.

The state Republican Party has called for the House Ethics Committee to investigate the issue, a proposal Finneran brushed aside yesterday. ''I don't think the credibility of the House is at risk at all,'' Finneran said, noting that the budget addresses a host of such major public policy issues as housing, education and health care.