Mess-achusetts: Campaign Finance Overhaul Falls Apart

Massachusetts was supposed to be a leader in the battle to overhaul campaign-finance systems.  But just two years after 65 percent of Bay Staters passed a so-called "Clean Elections Law," the state Legislature is refusing to appropriate the $10 million needed to fund statewide campaigns.

After more than five hours of angry debate on the House floor, an amendment to kill the funding passed by a vote of 96 to 59.

House Speaker Tom Finneran said financial pressure prompted the vote to kill the new public-finance system.  Because of a weak economy — Massachusetts lost $750 million in tax revenue this past year — it was impossible to fund education, health care and campaigns.

"We have to make choices of what we'll fund with limited revenues that are available," Finneran said.

But Finneran is also philosophically opposed to the law, which provides public funds for candidates seeking office.

"This system would forcibly extract money and throw it willy-nilly at people, some of whom I find abhorrent ... I prefer to have the fundamental right of an American citizen to pick and choose those people who I think reflect my values," he said.

Finneran and other House leaders proposed an alternative way to fund campaigns — having voters check off a box on their taxes to contribute anywhere from $1 to $100 to fund campaigns.

But Ken White, the executive director of the political watchdog group Common Cause, said such a move would be the demise of the Clean Elections Law.

"We don't fund anything else by that method," White said.  "Why only 'clean elections' would we fund by that method? The obvious answer is it's a ploy to kill it."

Candidates such as Warren Tolman, who got into political races thinking they'd have millions of dollars at their disposal to fund a campaign, now wonder whether they'll survive the campaign season. Tolman vowed to accept only $100 contributions in his race for governor. Now he worries he'll be at a disadvantage among other candidates. So he's taking the unprecedented step of suing the speaker of the house, hoping to force him to provide funds.

"What we're really talking about now is gutting and stopping the people's will," Tolman said. "If [the Legislature] can get away with doing this when two-thirds of people weighed in quite significantly in support of it, they can get away with it whenever they want,"

Funding for the Clean Elections Law will now be debated in the Massachusetts Senate. Leaders in the Senate say the law enjoys support in the upper chamber.  The decision in the Bay State will likely be a bellwether for the 10 other states currently considering campaign-finance reform.