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SCOT LEHIGH

The would-be governors and the union loophole

Don Berwick is one of the gubernatorial candidates who favors closing a campaign finance loophole.

John Tlumacki/Boston Globe

Don Berwick is one of the gubernatorial candidates who favors closing a campaign finance loophole.

In the wake of the dark money dumped into last year’s Boston mayoral race, state lawmakers are working on an overhaul of campaign finance laws to require that super PACs disclose their donors as well as their spending in a timely way.

That’s all to the good, but one big question remains: Will the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature continue to allow labor unions to donate far more than everyday citizens to favored candidates? The House rejected an amendment to close the loophole under which unions can donate $15,000 — 30 times more than an individual can give to a candidate — directly to a campaign.

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That’s unfortunate, because the House effort is otherwise a solid attempt at updating the state’s outdated campaign-finance laws. The bill would require that super PAC TV ads list on screen the top five funders of those spots. Groups like, say, Democrats for Education Reform, which spent heavily on behalf of John Connolly in last year’s mayoral race, would have to disclose who funds campaign communications, be they ads, mail, or canvassing.

The bill also tries to pierce the deep fog that often cloaks dark money. Last year, for example, the American Federation of Teachers used a shell entity in New Jersey to fund a mysterious front group in Massachusetts, which then financed a major TV ad buy to boost Marty Walsh’s campaign. Under the House bill, the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance would have the power to require timely disclosure of the major contributors to those shadowy secondary groups as well.

The bill also increases the amount individuals can give to state campaigns from $500 to $1,000 per year, effective next year, which means candidates won’t have to spend as much time dialing for dollars.

The Democratic gubernatorial candidates have come out in favor of the House bill itself. But what about closing the union loophole? This week, Republican hopeful Charles D. Baker Jr., who is basically supportive of the House bill, challenged his rivals to join him in calling for that loophole to be closed. As it happens, I had asked the same question last week. The answers are both telling and typical.

Let’s start with Don Berwick, because he responded quickly and clearly.

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“It is time to end the loophole allowing labor unions to donate up to $15,000 to a candidate,” Berwick said via statement, adding that over the longer term he favors public financing of campaigns.

Joining Berwick in the quick and clear response category was independent candidate Evan Falchuk, who said by statement that unions shouldn’t have “an unfair thumb-on-the-scale advantage,” but rather the same $1,000 limit that individuals would have in future years if the bill becomes law.

Alas, there was no such clarity with frontrunner Martha Coakley.

“She is open to reviewing donation limits for individuals and organized labor with the goal of leveling the playing field so that working families can compete with super PACs funded by corporations and special interests,” Coakley’s campaign said in a statement.

What does that even mean? It nods in two different directions, while saying essentially nothing. My follow-up e-mail asking for a simple yes or no went unanswered. Call this another Coakley shilly-shally.

Steven Grossman actually declared himself in favor of the union loophole, diving deep into the weeds to justify his stand. “[T]the money in question represents funds aggregated from hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of different union members, not a single individual,” his campaign said. “Additionally, the $15,000 figure is the maximum amount of such funds a union can donate among all candidates, so the effective limit on a donation to any particular candidate is often far less.”

True, but so what? Those individual union members could still make individual donations to their favored candidates, just as everyday voters do. Union PACs could still give $500 to an array of candidates. And unions, like corporations, would still be able to make unlimited independent expenditures.

In short, there’s no cogent public-policy rationale for letting unions directly donate $15,000 as well. There is, to be sure, a political reason: Labor spending generally helps the Democrats. But that motivation elevates electoral-alliance politics above a fair election process.

“There should be one standard for everyone,” declares Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.

It’s hard to argue with that. Kudos to the candidates willing to speak clearly on that point.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.
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