MAYORAL CANDIDATE John R. Connolly's rejection of help from independent outside political groups on Wednesday was a welcome step toward a cleaner election, and fellow candidates Marty Walsh and Charlotte Golar Richie ought to do the same. But whatever its short-term impact, the recent dust-up over campaign funding also illustrates the need for changes to Massachusetts campaign finance rules, so that there is less chance for outside groups, reaping unlimited contributions, sometimes from unnamed donors, to play decisive roles in future mayoral races.
Spending by outside groups has mushroomed since the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision overturned limits on so-called independent expenditures made on behalf of candidates. Massachusetts can't undo Citizens United. But the state can require those outside groups to disclose their fund-raising more rapidly. Right now, because of a loophole in state law, independent groups spending in the mayor's race won't have to update their list of donors until 2014. The Legislature could easily fix that, requiring groups to disclose their donors just before Election Day in municipal elections, as they already do in statewide contests. That would at least give city voters more timely information about who is funding outside activity.
Another way to reduce the threat of shadow funding sources is to make conventional, regulated donations a more appealing alternative. In federal elections, donors can give $2,600, an amount that is indexed to inflation, but in Massachusetts the limit has been set at $500 since 1994. It's now one of the lowest state limits in the nation. The state should increase its donation limit modestly, and then allow it to rise with inflation. The more that candidates can raise by transparent means, the less pressure they will feel to accept unaccountable outside money.
Nothing the state can do, however, will eliminate the fundamental problem — the unlimited nature of independent-expenditure activity in the post-Citizens United landscape. Nor can the state fix federal tax rules that have made it possible for some political groups to take donations from anonymous supporters by characterizing them as charitable donations.
That is why voluntary efforts like the people's pledge that kept big-money super PACs at bay in last year's Brown-Warren Senate race will remain important. When Connolly asked two independent groups that backed him, Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform, to stop campaigning on his behalf, and agreed to pay a penalty if the groups do so anyway, he upheld the spirit of the pledge. Candidates Dan Conley and Rob Consalvo have made a similar vow, but for them it was a less meaningful gesture: Independent-expenditure groups haven't shown any inclination to support them anyway. Walsh, though, has declined to distance himself from the significant independent-expenditure activity he's receiving from organized labor, and Richie won't disavow the national women's groups expected to support her candidacy. For the sake of voters, they should.