Rules in campaign finance law should apply equally to everyone, but since the mid-1980s, labor unions in Massachusetts have enjoyed a special privilege. Unlike employers — or, for that matter, individuals — unions have been allowed to contribute up to $15,000 to candidates in state elections.
In small legislative or mayoral races, donations that big — or just the potential for donations that big — can have a real impact, and the union loophole has come under increasing legal scrutiny. There is no explicit legislative authorization for the loophole — the secretary of state in 1974 who created an earlier version of the union exemption said he did so after he “checked with the authors” of the state’s campaign finance law. Then, last year, in a footnote to another decision on campaign finance, the Supreme Judicial Court noted that the union loophole may not have legal standing.
In November, watchdog group Common Cause Massachusetts asked the Office of Campaign and Political Finance to launch a review of the rule. Now it has done so. The office proposed reducing the allowed contribution to $1,000, the same amount that individuals can donate. Corporations can’t donate anything, and that wouldn’t change under the proposal.
At a Beacon Hill hearing last week, the office’s proposal came under criticism from both supporters and opponents of the union limit, which also applies to nonprofits that aren’t corporate funded. Unions want to leave the $15,000 limit in place, while groups like the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance want the allowance eliminated entirely, claiming the office has no legal authority to allow direct union contributions at all.
The whole discussion would be moot at the federal level, because neither businesses nor unions can make direct contributions to congressional or presidential candidates.
Whatever the state decides, labor will still have plenty of legal avenues to political involvement. Unions, like corporations, benefited from the Supreme Court’s awful Citizens United decision, which allowed them to spend without limitation as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates.
All that is at stake in the Massachusetts campaign finance proceeding is their ability to make direct contributions to state candidates. And of course, union members themselves can contribute as individuals.
Overall, the proposal moves state policies in the right direction, removing a special accommodation for one political constituency. At a time when campaign finance rules are under constant attack, it would be a welcome reform.
And if the Legislature went a step further by
explicitly extending the ban on and corporate contributions to unions, it would be a welcome statement in Massachusetts.