The Boston Herald
Sunday March 18, 2001
Clean Elections mess: Legislators making hash of popular will
by Jeff Katz
"I don't think that most voters understood they were voting for taxpayer-funded campaigns."
- Sen. Marian Walsh
"The new law creates a voluntary system allowing candidates
for state office who agree to campaign spending limits and $100 contribution limits to receive a set amount of public funds
for their campaigns, starting with the 2002 election"
That's the first line of the 1998 "clean elections" ballot
question approved by Massachusetts voters by a margin of 58 percent to 30 percent.
In a democracy, it is generally a bad idea for a legislator
to question the intent, or intelligence, of her constituents when they vote overwhelmingly for something. Unfortunately,
Massachusetts is not a democracy.
On the same ballot where voters soundly endorsed election
reform, the need for reform was clear. Walsh (D-W. Roxbury), like 24 of her 39 Senate colleagues, ran unopposed on the
ballot. Of the 160 candidates running for election to the House, 93 were unopposed.
I can't speak for "most voters," but on Election Day in
1998, I knew exactly, precisely and clearly that I was voting for taxpayer-funded elections in Massachusetts. Not only did I
know what I was voting for, I cast my vote with the rock-solid and passionate belief that
taxpayer-funded campaign finance reform is the single most important issue facing the citizens
of Massachusetts. Like millions of Americans, I see how the corrosive impact of money has
distorted our political system.
Any other issue I care about, from child welfare to the
environment to taxes, is warped by two undeniable facts of the current system: First, candidates for office are required to
solicit large sums of money. Second, people give money to candidates in order to gain influence.
These facts shape who the candidate knows, who the candidate listens to and, in a
very real sense, who the candidate serves.
The Clean Elections Law is a clearly worded and unambiguous
effort to reform elections in Massachusetts. The law provides public funding to candidates who agree to abide by strict
fund-raising and spending limits. Even if candidates choose not to accept public funding and
raise more than the limit, they get no advantage. Every dollar they spend over the limit is
matched by the public fund and given to their opponent. If a candidate is unopposed, they
receive only half the amount of public funds and can spend only half the money on their
The Clean Elections Law is an effective tool for creating an
even playing field for anyone running for public office. And that is precisely why most members of the House and Senate in
Massachusetts detest it.
Ever since the Clean Elections Law passed, legislators in
Massachusetts have been almost comical in their efforts to twist the legislation to their advantage. They floated the idea
of limiting the Clean Elections Law to statewide offices, thus exempting themselves. They talked
about limiting the period covered by the law, so that incumbents could raise hordes of
cash well in advance of the election and, after stacking the deck in their favor, agree to the same
fund-raising "limits" as their less well-heeled challengers. If you want to see how
running unopposed causes legislators tune out his or her constituents, look no further than the Clean
Elections Law. Many legislators haven't faced an Election Day opponent in
But now the issue is coming to a head. For the purposes of
the Clean Election Law, the election cycle for the 2002 election starts March 31. If the opponents of clean elections
are going to scuttle the new law, they must act quickly. With a tin ear to the will of the people,
sweat forming on their brows, eyes shifting desperately in fear, opponents of the
Clean Elections Law are searching for any way to kill the new law. Anything is possible. Only the
vigilance of a free press and the voice of an alarmed public can prevent the Legislature
from destroying the Clean Elections Law.
Apparently, some of our elected representatives now feel
that we didn't really mean it when we voted 2-to-1 in favor of publicly funded clean elections. Perhaps it is time for us to
Jeff Katz is a fellow at the Malcom Weiner Center for Social
Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The Boston Herald
Sunday, March 18, 2001
Ballot question expensive, misguided
by Marian Walsh and Daniel Keenan
Ballot questions have had a rocky road in Massachusetts. The
death penalty, supported by a majority of the voters in 1982, was reversed by the courts and has been repeatedly rejected
by the Legislature. The voters, in 1986, rejected a mandatory seat belt law initiative. The
Legislature passed it again, even over the objections of then Gov. William Weld.
The fact is that the ballot question process does not end on
Election Day. This issue was debated and settled at the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1917-1918. That
Constitutional Convention exempted the judiciary and appropriations from any ballot
initiative. It also established that the General Court may amend or repeal a law approved by
Our Constitution provides a check and balance to "popular"
ideas that, if implemented, would ill serve the people.
In this instance, in 1998, 58.4 percent of the voters
approved ballot Question 2. Among other things, this question authorizes a public subsidy of state political campaigns. This
ballot question, currently before the Legislature, requires a public appropriation of tens of millions
of dollars for implementation, with no end in sight. Even the strongest supporters of this ballot
initiative agree that it begs for clarification, regulation and immunization from fraud and
In addition, proponents of this public subsidy of political
campaigns have not met their burden of proof: a) demonstrating the problem, and b) showing that this ballot question is the
Massachusetts campaign finance laws are among the strongest
in the nation. Corporations are totally banned from contributing to political candidates. Lobbyists are limited to
$200 in each calendar year. Political Action Committees are frozen at $500 and the total from PACs
is limited to $18,500 for a senator and $7,500 for a representative per year.
Individuals may donate no more than $500 annually.
These restrictions, and many more, are enforced and monitored by a state-funded agency.
Regular reports are filed during the year and signed by candidates under the pains and
penalties of perjury.
None of these contribution restrictions apply to ballot
initiatives or to candidates for federal office. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is beating the drum to limit corporate
bankrolling and soft money windfalls at the federal level. McCain opposes the public financing of political
campaigns. He has the support of most Americans, including many of us in the
According to public records, ballot question donors are
invariably corporate or special interests. This was true for backers of Question 2 in 1998. As a matter of fact, 47
individuals provided 84 percent of the $1,011,068 raised by the dominant committee promoting this
ballot question. The special interest and out-of-state money that paid for this ballot
question has been one of the best-kept secrets in Massachusetts.
Lack of legislative turnover is a chronic claim from supporters of the ballot initiative.
However, the facts don't support their concern. Only 42 of the current 160 House members
were serving there in 1990. In the Senate, only 9 of the 40 members were there in 1990.
Both chambers expect to lose several more members before the next election cycle.
Public subsidy of state political campaigns is not a substitute for campaign reform. More
importantly, it is not reform in the areas where reform is so desperately needed -- at
the federal level. The current campaign finance laws in Massachusetts serve as a model around
the country. The federal government should adopt Massachusetts' campaign finance laws,
just as it did our state constitution.
It has been our observation and inspiration that legislators
have the courage of their convictions and each member will respond to this civic debate honorably. Respect for
diverse and differing points of view, and a legislative resolution as provided for in our state
constitution, are what is now needed and what will occur.
Sen. Marian Walsh (D) is from West Roxbury. Rep. Daniel Keenan
(D) lives in Blandford.