Campaign finance reformers have filed legislation to crack down on a controversial operation devised by the Massachusetts Republican Party to collect large amounts of political cash under federal rules — contributions that far exceed state-mandated limits — that it then spends on some of Governor Charlie Baker’s state political activities.
The move, led by Common Cause Massachusetts, is aimed at undoing a ruling last month by the Office of Campaign and Political Finance that Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito are not violating a 1998 state law that bans state political figures from using federally raised donations.
The bill also would address another area of what they say is “significant undisclosed money in politics” by requiring disclosure of money raised for state committee races.
In an unprecedented burst of fund-raising for low-profile party positions, Baker raised over $300,000 this past winter in his successful attempt to control the state GOP. The governor has refused to divulge the list of donors or how the money was spent, and the law does not require him to.
The sponsors say their legislation would bring transparency to an area of fund-raising that is not regulated and ensure that only funds raised under state law — which caps donations at $1,000 a year to an individual candidate — are used for state elections.
“Federal limits are much, much higher than state limits, and in fact contributions over $43,000 are allowable to a joint venture with the . . . [Republican National Committee] which then gets transferred back to the Massachusetts Republican Party,’’ states the summary of the bill.
Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause, said the bill is critical to her organization’s mission to make sure the average citizen has a bigger voice in politics and to reduce the power of special interests.
“The loophole the Republican Party has been exploiting to double those limits, or even expand them sixfold, needs to be closed in order to preserve the integrity of Massachusetts campaign finance laws,’’ she said. “The legislation we put forward will do that.”
When state regulators announced their decision in April, approving of the controversial GOP fund-raising mechanism, Democrats and campaign finance reformers immediately denounced the ruling, saying it undercuts the state’s ability to control political financing of its elections.
Former governor Deval Patrick’s campaign manager and former state Democratic chairman John Walsh said the ruling would bring about a “huge sea change” to the way campaign funds are raised and used in Massachusetts.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who chairs the committee that appoints the Office of Campaign and Political Finance’s directors, said the decision “basically neuters the state campaign finance laws.”
The ruling was prompted by a Globe story last June that showed the Baker and Polito campaign committees, by using Republican Party employees and resources funded through the state party’s federal account, were avoiding paying hundred of thousands of dollars in staff salaries, office rent, health insurance, payroll taxes, and other costs that campaign committees normally have to pay.
Committees for other political incumbents have been burdened with heavy overhead costs.
Patrick’s committee raised just under $1 million in 2008 but paid close to $260,000 for staff, $72,000 in office rent, and $7,000 for phones. In 2015, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh raised close to $1.25 million and paid his fund-raising staff and consultants $200,000.
A story earlier this year also demonstrated how the state party had created a federally regulated joint fund-raising committee, the Massachusetts Victory Committee, with the Republican National Committee in order to raise donations of up to $43,400 a year from wealthy Massachusetts donors, many of whom have business before the Baker administration or contracts with the state.
A sponsor of the bill, Senator James B. Eldridge, a Democrat from Acton, cited the governor’s refusal to make public his fund-raising for the state committee races as a reason to include a provision to require for the first time public disclosure of the financing of those political campaigns.
But he also said Baker should make public the money he already raised.
“He could easily self-disclose,’’ Eldridge said. “We elected officials can take measures to disclose; that’s just common sense.”
The immediate future of the bill is far from certain. It would require a rushed process to get through both the Senate and House in this year’s session, which ends in late July.
The legislation was accepted in the Senate earlier this month, but the House has yet to admit the bill — a necessary step to move it forward with a hearing and vote in both chambers.
Eldridge suggested one vehicle for the legislation would be a floor amendment to the Senate budget proposal if it runs into a problem in the House.
Baker has shown no signs of embracing the changes that Common Cause is seeking. In a statement, senior adviser Tim Buckley said the governor believes improvements can be made to the state’s campaign finance system and the governor will “work with legislative leadership on the issue.”
He offered no further details or response to questions about whether Baker would release the list of donors for his recent campaign to back a slate of GOP state committee candidates.
Brian Wynne, the state GOP’s executive director, insisted the Republicans’ fund-raising operations are “fully compliant with state and federal law. We will continue to comply with campaign finance law as it evolves over time.”
Frank Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.