Restoring the public's confidence in Massachusetts election laws

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MASSACHUSETTS election laws are about as perfect as a set of bone china dishes that has been dropped from a skyscraper. But unlike the fragile cups, saucers, and plates, there is much to suggest that some of the statutes regulating political campaigns and candidates were made if not to be broken, then to be stretched.

Particularly evident are weaknesses in fund-raising and spending controls, which enhance the influence of special interests and give officeholders a perhaps unfair advantage over would-be challengers.

Despite some recent improvements, such as the requirement for periodic financial disclosures by candidates and elected officials, more must be done to build public confidence in the integrity of those who hold elective office in the Bay State.

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Yet those who could do something about this situation may not be all that interested in the reforms needed.

The House-approved measure to limit to $1,000 a year the amount a political-action committee (PAC) could give to a candidate is at best a tiny step in the right direction. Restricting such gifts to $100, or even less, would seem more appropriate if state lawmakers are really interested in seeing that they are truly free from even the possibility of being beholden to any outside force.

Currently there is no limit on what either a PAC or political party can contribute to a candidate or officeholder in state and local government. But federal election laws impose a $5,000-a-year cap on contributions to those running for US Senate and House.

As good an idea as it may be to curb how much any group, or even individual, can give to a candidate, it clearly is no substitute for tighter restrictions on how such funds are used by the recipient.

Perhaps the most glaring loophole makes it legal for elected officials and candidates to hold onto money unspent in one campaign for use in a later campaign, including one for a different office. Such dollars, however, cannot be transferred or converted, legally that is, by a candidate for personal use, such as buying clothes.

Under a 1980 law, whatever funds are left in a campaign account when a politician retires or passes on must be turned over to the commonwealth for the local aid fund. The amounts so contributed thus far are minuscule. Most of those deciding not to run again spend whatever surplus they might have before formally making the move and filing their final campaign-finance report.

While many political candidates spend every penny they raise for a campaign, some have been able to build up sizable reserves. Even those with little or no ballot opposition manage through various fund-raisers to amass large sums.

Once an election is over and expenses are paid, a candidate can continue to draw on whatever money is left for campaign-related purposes, as long as it is reported.

That some of the commonwealth's better-known politicians are taking full advantage of this possibility is underscored by a recent story in the Quincy Patriot Ledger. It said that Since January 1983, for example, Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti, State Treasurer Robert Q. Crane, State Auditor John J. Finnegan, and Secretary of State Michael J. Connolly have dipped into their campaign accounts for supposedly campaign-connected expenses, totaling more than $500,000. Much of it went for restaurant and l iquor bills.

Presumably the money was used to build goodwill aimed at the official's next campaign.

In the interest of fairness, it might be better if candidates, whether successful or not, were compelled to return any excess funds to contributors once all campaign bills are paid. Or, if not sent back to their source, the unused money could be turned over to the state treasury for use in at least partly defraying the cost of the state or municipal election involved.

Don't expect such a suggestion to get anywhere, however, unless some civic force, more interested in strengthening the electoral process rather than in the success of a particular candidate or party, takes the initiative.

That's where the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, or perhaps some other group with grass-roots connections could step in.

If nothing else, limiting fund-raising not only as to source and extent but also to a specific political campaign just might reduce substantially the influence of money in Bay State campaigning.

Ability to raise large sums and to hoard much of it or even use it in what could be considered an ongoing ``slush fund'' should not be a determining factor in the success of a candidate. -- 30 --

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