Metro

House sidelines campaign finance bill

The Massachusetts State House in Boston, MA.; Shutterstock ID 196584356; PO: oped
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Legislation designed by campaign reformers to crack down on the heated fund-raising by Governor Charlie Baker and the Massachusetts GOP has been sidelined in the House, where Speaker Robert DeLeo wants to shunt it off to a task force that will study political finance, among other issues.

A DeLeo spokesman said the Senate bill will not be formally accepted in the House — apparently dashing any hopes the legislation could become law before this fall’s elections.

He noted that it is unusual to push a new bill through the Legislature in the final weeks of the session. “With rare exception, the House generally does not fast-track late-filed legislation, especially with eight weeks left,” said Seth Gitell, the DeLeo spokesman.

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Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said she was disappointed the proposal had hit a roadblock.

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“This legislation is urgently needed to reduce special-interest money in politics and should be given a public hearing as soon as possible,’’ she said. “The fact that there might be a task force should not block consideration of campaign finance legislation in this legislative session.”

The speaker in February proposed creating the task force to review the state ethics law, campaign finance, and lobbying. It would be composed of 11 members appointed by the House and Senate leadership and by Baker, whose controversial fund-raising is at issue.

The Senate, however, has not agreed to the task force, insisting instead that the legislation move forward with a full committee hearing and a vote in both branches before the Legislature adjourns for the year on July 31.

“At this time, we are not prepared to support the creation of a task force because we have many question about its objective and goals,’’ said Natasha Perez, Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg’s chief of staff.

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Earlier this year, however — before the new legislation was drafted — Rosenberg expressed interest in participating in such a panel. “I am fully supportive of what the speaker is proposing,” he said told reporters in February.

The new bill is aimed at curbing what Common Cause describes as a “new scheme” by Baker and the state Republican Party to raise large amounts of political cash under federal rules — far above state limits — that it then spends on some of his state political activities.

The legislation would tighten a 1998 law that bans state political figures from using federally raised donations. The bill also would address another area of what Common Cause calls “significant undisclosed money in politics” by requiring disclosure of money raised for party 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. There is no law requiring him to do so.

The governor’s office indicated that while Baker’s attention has been focused on other matters, reforms to the state’s campaign finance system are needed.

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“The governor continues to believe there are improvements to be made to the state’s campaign finance system and while the immediate focus has been on urgent matters such as the opioid epidemic and closing billion dollar deficits without raising taxes, the administration will work with legislative leaders on meaningful bipartisan campaign finance reform.”

Baker’s top campaign finance priority — one that he would probably bring to the panel — involves a law that allows labor unions to directly contribute up to $15,000 to political candidates, while corporations are barred from making similar donations. He and his GOP operatives argue corporations should be treated the same as unions.

Common Cause and supporters in the Senate, including Democratic Senator James B. Eldridge of Acton, filed the bill after state regulators ruled in April that the use of federally funded donations to support Baker’s political activities is legal because of a “loophole” in the state and federal laws.

The ruling was prompted by a Globe story last June that showed the political campaigns of Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, by using party employees and resources funded through the state party’s federal account, are avoiding paying staff salaries, office rent, health insurance, payroll taxes, and other costs that campaign committees normally have to pay.

A story earlier this year also outlined how the state party had created a federally regulated joint fund-raising committee — the Massachusetts Victory Committee — with the Republican National Committee to raise donations of up to $43,400 a year from wealthy Massachusetts donors, many of whom have business before the Baker administration or contract with the state.

“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 — with no identification of the donor — back to the Massachusetts Republican Party,’’ states the summary of the bill.

Democrats and reformers immediately denounced the ruling, saying it undercuts the state’s ability to control political financing of its elections and demands for transparency. Donations are capped by state law at $1,000 a year.

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.