If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that parents are the backbone of this society — as caregivers and teachers, advisers and comforters. Doesn’t that sound like exactly the kind of people voters might want to serve as legislators or even governor?
No one should have to wait until the kids are all grown in order to take on the added responsibility of campaigning for public office.
A special legislative commission that studied the idea last year has concluded that one simple little change to the state’s election laws could encourage more parents of young children to seek elective office: allowing them to use campaign funds to pay for child care expenses.
It’s hardly revolutionary. Those running for Congress have been able to do so since at least 2018 (although even prior to that, there was no prohibition on the practice). And at least 13 other states now expressly permit candidates to use campaign funds for child care expenses.
“I think we want to encourage as many parents as possible — men and women — to run for office,” said Senator Barry Finegold, who cochaired the special commission now on record as supporting the idea.
The idea is to diversify the field of would-be candidates for public office. And if deducting the cost of day care or a baby sitter from campaign coffers will advance that prospect, well then why not?
After all, the list of already permitted campaign expenditures is long and varied, including costly dinners (for staff, colleagues, supporters, or those likely to be supporters), memberships in clubs used for entertaining, embroidered shirts for campaign events, even the purchase or rental of tuxedos or ball gowns.
But the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, which determines what is or isn’t permissible in state and local races under state law, has long regarded child care expenses as a “personal use” of funds and, therefore, prohibited.
The Special Commission on Family Care and Child Care proposes to change that during this session of the Legislature. A bill filed by Representative Mike Connolly and Senator Pat Jehlen — originally offered during the last session of the Legislature — would permit campaign funds to be used for child care “directly related” to “campaign activities.” It would also prohibit payments to relatives “unless the relative owns or operates a professional daycare or babysitting service.”
The issue is a growing one around the nation as more women run for public office. The National Conference of State Legislatures reported that in 2019 the national share of female legislators hit 28.1 percent, about 3 percentage points higher than the previous year. It was also the year that California and Colorado joined the ranks of states passing legislation to permit child care expenditures, with New Jersey joining in last October. Other states — including Connecticut, Kansas, Texas, and Maryland — accomplished the same thing via administrative actions. The Maryland Board of Elections decided that “child care expenses would have to have an electoral purpose” such as a baby sitter hired while a candidate attended a political fundraiser.
Here, however, when Lee Erica Palmer was running for school committee in Somerville in 2017 and asked OCPF if she could use campaign funds for child care, the answer was no.
So yes to tuxedos and membership in the UMass Club, but no to child care.
There is potentially a simpler way to change the rule. The job as head of OCPF, which had been held by the retiring Michael Sullivan for nearly 27 years, will soon be under new leadership. The selection, delayed by the pandemic, of Woburn City Clerk William Campbell was made Friday by a search committee consisting (by statute) of the secretary of state, the state chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties, and a law school dean, a slot currently filled by Boston College Law School Dean Vincent Rougeau.
Surely this new OCPF leader might reconsider that 2017 ruling and come to the same conclusion as officials in Maryland, Connecticut, Texas, and Kansas that there’s nothing in the law to prohibit reasonable campaign fund expenditures for child care while candidates are on the campaign trail.
But if not — well, the same lawmakers who have already benefitted from generous interpretations of campaign expenditure laws in other ways should do the right thing and extend the law to child care.
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