Unions have long held an unusual political advantage in this state, in part because Massachusetts allows them to give up to $15,000 to any one candidate.
This advantage — or loophole, depending on your perspective — survived a state Supreme Judicial Court ruling in September.
But it might not be around for much longer.
The state Office of Campaign and Political Finance has started a rule-making process that could rewrite the books on the issue, following a Nov. 7 request from watchdog group Common Cause of Massachusetts. Labor reps and their occasional antagonists from the business community will likely weigh in before the initial comment period ends Nov. 30. A draft decision is expected by Feb. 1.
Some business advocates view this as an unfair advantage, one that stems from the state law banning direct corporate donations to candidates. Trade groups are usually nonprofits, but they get much of their money from corporate members. Unions, meanwhile, are funded by individuals’ dues, and have thus been allowed to make contributions above the state limits, up to $15,000 a year.
Common Cause has argued for a legislative fix in the past. That’s a tough sell in the union-friendly State House.
Common Cause executive director Pam Wilmot isn’t known as a champion of corporate interests. But she also sees an inherent unfairness. A small number of organizations, she says, shouldn’t be allowed to make a $15,000 gift when nearly everyone else is limited to $1,000 per candidate (or $500, in the case of political action committees). The current approach was put in place through an OCPF bulletin in 1988, but Wilmot wants a more thorough regulatory review.
The SJC seemed to imply the same thing, in a footnote to its Sept. 6 decision in the 1A Auto case. The SJC opted not to rule on the issue, and instead simply upheld the longstanding ban on direct corporate gifts. (Meanwhile, the court also said businesses remain free to give to “Super PACs” that do not work directly with candidates.) The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, the right-leaning group behind the 1A Auto case, expects to testify to OCPF in favor of eliminating the union advantage.
A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO declined to say what will be in the labor group’s testimony. Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s largest employer group, may also opine, and has been in talks with other business groups about a unified filing. AIM, too, declined to disclose what it might say.
Jon Hurst, head of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, is talking, though. His group will likely comment separately, even if it agrees with the broader business effort. Hurst often complains about organized labor’s power here, and is eager to even the playing field. He says he plans to also point out that business groups can only use individual donations for political action committee expenses, while unions regularly draw from their treasuries.
Truth be told, the $15,000 “loophole” isn’t frequently used for direct candidate donations. (Unions also have PACs for that.) State records show the last time any candidate received a large amount of funds this way was in 2013; that candidate was Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, in his first mayoral campaign, and the gifts came from a variety of local and out-of-state trade unions. A number of unions used it, to a lesser extent, in Martha Coakley’s failed campaign for governor in 2014, for example, and in two state senate campaigns this year.
But Common Cause argues that this advantage remains unfair, regardless of how often it plays out in politics. We’ll soon find out whether state campaign finance officials agree.Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.