For government to represent the interests of average people, public officials have to be liberated from their dependence on private interests to finance their campaigns. Doing that means going far beyond anything dreamt of in the watered-down McCain-Feingold bill sloshing its way through Congress, which closes one loophole (soft money) while widening the hard-money pipeline. That’s why a little-noticed storm going on right now in the state of Massachusetts is so important.
Happily, such an alternative approach to privately financed campaigns is not an abstraction. Clean Money/Clean Elections, or full public financing for candidates who agree to raise no private money and abide by spending limits, is the law in four states: Maine, Vermont, Arizona and Massachusetts. The first three states have already experienced one successful run of the system, with more competition in races and numerous incumbents from both parties now in office clean of ties to private contributors. But in Massachusetts, opponents of public financing, led by the Democratic Speaker of the state House of Representatives, are trying to put a stake into its heart just as it goes into effect there for the 2002 election cycle.
In Massachusetts, birthplace of the American Revolution, the voters went for Clean Elections by a margin of 2-1 when they enacted it by initiative in 1998. The law is similar to the Maine and Arizona models, with some minor variations. One big difference, unfortunately, is that in Massachusetts funding has to be appropriated by the legislature. So for the past three years, there’s been a battle to get the state legislative leaders to put about $10 million per year aside to insure enough public funding for statewide and legislative candidates. In past sessions, the law’s opponents have tried to gut it twice, each time backing down in the face of boisterous protests. This year they may succeed unless supporters of Clean Elections manage to ratchet up the public pressure even further. The local press is in an uproar over the legislature’s machinations–not only has the usually liberal Boston Globe issued several thunderous editorials, even the Murdoch-owned Boston Herald, which opposed the Clean Elections initiative in 1998, has come out in favor of the new law now, arguing that the legislature has to respect the people’s will.
But on May 1, acting at the behest of Speaker Tom Finneran–a Democrat in name but an incumbent-protection specialist first and foremost–the Massachusetts House voted essentially to defund the law, eliminating its annual $10 million appropriation and shifting its funding solely to voluntary taxpayer checkoffs on their tax returns. As an existing state checkoff system only brings in $500,000 a year, Finneran’s claim that he is only asking the voters to pay for the law they passed is nothing short of cynical. The vote breakdown shows that this is not a partisan issue: Of the 134 Democrats, eighty-three voted with Finneran, forty-nine opposed him, and two abstained; of the twenty-three Republicans, thirteen voted with the Speaker and ten voted against him. What it really is about is a battle between the haves and have-nots. Incumbents who benefit from the existing system of private financing loathe the idea of real competition for public office, which would undoubtedly occur if challengers receive full public financing for primaries and general elections. It doesn’t bother many of those incumbents that Massachusetts ranks near the bottom in terms of how few contested races it has for the state legislature.
Opponents of Clean Elections argue that Massachusetts cannot afford $10 million a year because the economy is slowing. Yet the $10 million request is less than one-half of one-tenth of 1 percent of the $22.8 billion state budget–a small price to pay to uphold the will of the voters and insure the integrity of the electoral process. Some of these same opponents had no problem seeking $3.5 million to build a new dog pound or $350,000 to finance baking contests and agricultural fairs, two typical pork projects that bit the dust once they were exposed in the press. But their opposition isn’t really about the merits of the law. It’s about winning, and it’s gotten pretty ugly. In one of several vicious moves by Clean Elections opponents, on the day after the House vote, Speaker Finneran’s top lieutenant eliminated funding from the budget for programs in the districts of six lawmakers who voted against the leadership. Later, a state representative discovered the program cuts, and an uproar followed. The funding was restored, but the message had been sent.
The action is now moving to the State Senate, which will release its version of the state budget shortly, at which point we’ll know whether Senate President Tom Birmingham, another Democrat, will keep his promise to fight for the Clean Elections funding. He has said he will, but he is also planning to run for governor and has raised wagonloads of private money already. Letting Clean Elections starve for funding might well serve his personal political interest, as he may not want to help some of his prospective opponents.
Politicians like to say that no one really cares about money in politics, but Massachusetts is proving them wrong. The battle to save Clean Elections is already a hot issue in the state–protesters stormed the House chamber in reaction to the May 1 vote, and are demonstrating in districts around the state. The outrage is palpable, particularly in districts in which the vote in favor of the law exceeded 70 percent. Citizens have made hundreds of calls to legislators (one lawmaker was quoted in the Boston Globe saying she had received sixty calls within two days of her bad vote), and the letters pages are filled with Clean Elections. And their protests are working–one leading Democratic opponent of the law just decided to switch her position after being bombarded by calls from her constituents.
But this isn’t just a local issue. This is also a test of the Democratic Party’s commitment to real campaign finance reform and an opportunity to expand an already promising model system. What’s going on in Massachusetts ought to concern anyone who wants to reduce dramatically money’s role in politics. The climactic fight to restore the law’s funding will come in mid-to-late June, when the state budget goes to conference and the real bargaining occurs. Mass Voters for Clean Elections, the primary group fighting to defend the law, is ramping up the pressure and the organizing, and needs all the help it can get. For more information, go to www.massvoters.org (Mass Voters for Clean Elections, 37 Temple Place, 5th Floor, Boston, MA 02111, 617-451-5999) or www.publicampaign.org (Public Campaign, 1320 19th St. NW, Suite M-1, Washington, DC 20036, 202-293-0222). Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of real reform.