Lawmakers rewrite Mass. campaign rules

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

assachusetts legislative leaders, in a move that would dramatically weaken the state's new campaign finance reform law, pushed through a measure yesterday that would allow Beacon Hill incumbents to raise and spend unlimited campaign cash for years and still qualify for public matching funds in the final days of their races.

Campaign reform groups say the measure would create a huge loophole in the new law, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters last November, and would undermine the very idea of publicly financed elections.

House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran and Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham, who have both stockpiled huge campaign war chests as they eye gubernatorial bids, included the rewriting of the Clean Elections Law as part of the negotiated state budget. The House and Senate approved the $20.87 billion spending plan last night and sent it to Governor Paul Cellucci.

''We've made the Clean Elections Law a viable one while still preserving the principle of public financing elections,'' Birmingham said.

Under the law approved by voters and scheduled to take effect in 2002, candidates for statewide office must decide at the beginning of their four-year terms whether to participate in the voluntary public-funded campaign system.

If they agree, they must limit fund-raising for the four-year cycle and cannot spend any campaign money until the election year. In exchange they receive public funds for their campaigns. For example, a gubernatorial candidate who agrees to limit campaign spending to $3 million would receive $2.55 million in public funds.

Legislative candidates decide at the start of each two-year election cycle whether to participate in the system. House candidates who limit their spending to $30,000 are eligible for $24,000 in public money.

But the change backed by the Democratic leadership would allow officeholders and candidates to raise and spend large sums - even millions of dollars - until six months before the general election, then join the public-funding system.

David Donnelly, director of Mass Voters for Clean Elections, accused Birmingham and Finneran of trying to gut the law.

''It is a huge loophole that allows candidates for all offices to raise unlimited amounts of special interest money and then preserve the option to say no to special interest money during the last few months of an election,'' Donnelly said.

But Birmingham defended the move, arguing that incumbent legislators need to raise and spend money regularly to run district offices and carry out many of their duties in their districts throughout their term.

''What we were trying to do for elected officals, particularly legislators, is deal with expenses that are expected of them and sometimes needed, but that would have all been prohibited by the Clean Elections Bill,'' Birmingham said.

Advocates for campaign finance reform reject the argument and say the changes will enhance the advantage of incumbents by allowing them to tap into special interest money and spend it to promote their reelection efforts during all but the last six months of their terms.

''This loophole would seriously unlevel the playing field since it is the incumbents who raise the money from the special interests,'' said George Pillsbury, director of the Massachusetts Money and Politics Project.

Birmingham had $422,961 in campaign funds in January, the last time he was required to file reports to the state. Finneran had $123,679. But since then both of them, particularly Birmingham, who has made it clear he wants to run for governor, have been raising large amounts.

For contributions, both rely partly on lobbyists and special interests with matters before the Legislature. Other House and Senate leaders also tap into those funds.

The Clean Elections Law was passed after lawmakers refused to approve a public funding system. The complicated system has created anxiety among the state's political establishment because of its sharp curbs on fund-raising and expenditures for those who participate.

Critics of the law say it is too restrictive in its expenditure ceilings and infringes on certain constitutional rights. However, a federal judge in Maine, which has passed a similar law, last week rejected those arguments.