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Clean Elections Law Faces Critical Test in Massachusetts: Will Democrats Appropriate the Funds?
Micah L. Sifry

There's a story brewing in Massachusetts that should be of interest to small-d democrats across the country. It's a test of the Democratic Party's commitment to campaign finance reform and a chance to save an important new model for reducing the role of private money in politics. Massachusetts is one of four states that has voted, since 1996, to adopt the Clean Money/Clean Elections system of campaign financing, where candidates get full public financing in exchange for agreeing to raise no private money and abide by spending limits.

In Maine and Arizona, where Clean Elections went into effect for the 2000 elections, the impact has been substantial. One-third of the Maine legislature is now made up of representatives with no ties to moneyed interests; in Arizona, the availability of public financing helped a maverick Democrat knock off a sitting House speaker and tilted the balance of power in the state Senate. Those states are worth an in-depth story on their own, but right now I'm writing about something more urgent.

In Massachusetts, the voters went for Clean Elections by a margin of 2-1 when they enacted it by initiative in 1998. The law is patterned on 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 last 3 years, there's been a battle to get the state legislative leaders (Democrats, by the way), to put about $10 million aside each year - so that when the law takes effect for the 2002 election cycle there will be enough public funding for statewide and legislative candidates.

The law's opponents have tried and failed to gut the law twice, but this year they may succeed unless the good guys manage to ratchet up the public pressure even further. The local press is in an uproar over the fight - even the Murdoch-owned Boston Herald, which opposed the Clean Elections initiative in 1998, has come out in favor now, arguing that the legislature has to respect the people's will.

But on May 1, the House voted to cut out the annual $10 million appropriation and shifted Clean Elections funding solely to voluntary taxpayer checkoffs on their tax returns. Everyone recognizes this as essentially defunding the system, since an existing checkoff system in Massachusetts only brings in about half a million dollars a year.

The breakdown of the vote demonstrates that this is not a partisan issue – of the 134 Democrats, 83 voted against us, 49 voted with us, and two abstained; and of the 23 Republicans, 13 voted against us and 10 voted with us. To her credit, the Republican Governor, Jane Swift, has been a strong supporter of the law.

What this really is about is a battle between the "ins" and "outs" in politics. Incumbents who benefit from the existing system of private financing loathe the idea of real competition for public office, which is what would undoubtedly happen if challengers could qualify for full public financing. The action is now moving to the state Senate, which will release its version of the state budget in early June, at which point we'll know whether the Senate president 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 may not want to help some of his prospective opponents.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, which assumes that voters don’t really care about campaign finance reform, the Clean Elections fight is a hot issue in the state. Protesters stormed the House chamber in reaction to the House’s 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%.

A few weeks ago, 75 local citizens protested in historic Concord, which is represented by one of the legislators who led the effort to de-fund the law. Citizens have made hundreds of calls to legislators (one lawmaker was quoted in the Boston Globe saying she had received 60 calls within two days of her bad vote), and the letters to the editor pages are filled with Clean Elections.

This public mobilization is getting results - one leading opponent of the law in the House just reversed her stance, and a state senator who has been a vocal critic has announced that he will support the system despite his misgivings.

But this isn't just a local issue. This is also test of the Democratic Party's commitment to real campaign finance reform (so far little has been heard from the state’s congressional delegation, even though they all supported the initiative in 1998). It’s also an opportunity to expand an already promising model system, and ought to concern anyone who believes that we can dramatically reduce money's role in politics.

People can alert their friends and relatives in Massachusetts about the issue - send them a copy of this alert - or they can get in touch with Mass Voters for Clean Elections, the primary group fighting to defend the law. Mass Voters is right now doing everything it can to increase the pressure on the state legislature to do the right thing; it would help them enormously if they knew people across the country cared about getting money out of politics too.

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).