State campaign finance officials moved Thursday to dramatically slash what labor unions can give to their preferred political candidates, while loosening rules on donations they can make to super PACs.
The new regulations, released by the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, replace decades-old rules and mark a sea change in how labor groups can spend money in support of political campaigns and parties in Massachusetts.
Currently, labor unions can give up to $15,000 annually to a single candidate. The new regulations, effective May 31, cut that limit to $1,000 while capping donations to political action committees at $500 and to a political party’s own committee at $5,000.
The limits, which state officials proposed in February, are “more consistent with the statutory framework of lower contribution limits that was created in the 1970s,” OCPF regulators wrote in a letter explaining their decision.
Unions are still bound by a $15,000 aggregate limit — meaning they could theoretically give 15 candidates $1,000 each. But if a union goes above that $15,000 limit, it must register as a political action committee. Once organized as a PAC, it would be capped at giving $500 a year to each candidate.
Under the current rules, unions that exceed the threshold are subject to the same limitations, but are not required to register as PACs.
The new regulations also ease some restrictions.
Currently, any independent expenditures or donations a union makes to a super PAC count toward the $15,000 threshold. A super PAC, known in regulators’ parlance as an “independent expenditure PAC,” can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money but is barred from giving money directly to a candidate or coordinating with a political campaign.
But the campaign finance office says it is lifting that rule, meaning unions will be free to give as much as they want to super PACs, as well as to ballot-question committees, without running up against the aggregate limit and the new requirement that they register as PACs.
Derided by critics as a loophole for unions, the $15,000 cap survived a challenge before the Supreme Judicial Court in September, when the justices upheld the longstanding ban on direct corporate gifts. But even then, the court implied — in a footnote — that the campaign finance office should review the regulation about the cap.
Common Cause Massachusetts, a good-government watchdog, petitioned regulators to modify it.
The changes unveiled Thursday, while effectively bringing unions under the same limits imposed on individuals, also eliminates a decades-old advantage that labor organizations have enjoyed in state and local elections in Massachusetts. The higher donation limit, set in the 1980s, applied to unions and nonprofits that aren’t corporate-funded.
Unions have at times used the advantage to pour thousands of dollars into the campaigns of individual candidates, with the 2013 Boston mayoral race being a notable example. That year, now-Mayor Martin J. Walsh received nearly $329,000 through just 22 donations from labor unions, many of them hailing from out of state.
The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative nonprofit whose founder, Rick Green, was behind the lawsuit to eliminate the corporate donation ban, cheered the new regulations. The group had pushed to have unions banned from making any political donations, as companies are.
“For the first time in a generation, union bosses will not have the loudest voice over everyone else,” said Paul D. Craney, a MassFiscal spokesman. “However, they still benefit by having the only voice when compared to employers.”
Since state officials published proposed rules three months ago, labor officials have urged regulators to reverse them, fearing they could curtail their ability to be politically active on behalf of their members.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association pushed the OCPF to allow unions to donate up to the $15,000 threshold to a PAC that a union itself creates. (Regulators did not adopt the suggestion.) And the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts argued that it would put an “undue administrative burden” on its 220-plus local fire union affiliates, who it said lack the resources and staff to organize as a PAC if they exceed the threshold.
Steven A. Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, told regulators at a March hearing that the change was “unfair” and an “overreach.”
“I’m disappointed. That’s the best way to say it,” Tolman said Thursday. “Twenty people can have a cocktail party — wealthy people — and raise a ton of money. This was a way for working people to have a little sway. But we’ll live within the rules. We just adapt to it.”
Regulators had planned to release the final regulations by May 1, but missed their self-imposed deadline to do “some fine-tuning,” a spokesman said.
The final regulations include only a few changes from the draft ones, including language specifying that an entity that raises money only for electioneering communications is not considered a political committee.
That change came in response to concerns raised by the Fiscal Alliance Foundation, a nonprofit created by the leaders at MassFiscal, according to the OCPF. MassFiscal, which has resisted disclosing its donors, had in the past regularly sent electioneering communications, such as mailers, to voters before the Legislature passed a new disclosure law in 2016.
Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.