Massachusetts ready for war on corruption, but can't agree on general

Ridding Massachusetts of political influence peddling and kickbacks in public building projects may not be as easy as reformers hope. Much will depend on the extent of citizen anger over wrongdoing spotlighted last week in a nine-volume report by a special commission. It detailed graft and incompetence in taxpayer-financed construction during the last two decades.

Initial steps toward more corruption-free climate have been taken: Three potentially tough new laws have been enacted. But the most significant improvement has yet to come.

"The single most corrupting factor" in Massachusetts politics, says John William Ward, who was chairman of the now-defunct commission, "is the present method of financing political campaigns."

The panel, after two years of investigations and hearings, made its strongest pitch for a statute to sharply lessen candidate dependence on private contributions.

The measure, which embraces partial public financing through a state income tax checkoff system, would be one of the most far reaching of its kind in the nation and embrace state legislative campaigns as well as those involving statewide offices.

"Without such a system, it will be virtually impossible to prevent the recurrence of the misdeeds which led to the need for the special commission," says State Rep. Philip W. Johnston, cosponsor of the 1978 legislation that provided for the panel.

Commission supporters are worried that "wheeling and dealing" will return in state contracting and private campaign contributions, "once the heat is off." They see public financing of political campaigns as the answer.

Much of the push for passage of the campaign financing reform proposal will come from citizen activist groups such as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. A similar measure came close to legislative approval in 1980.

The federal government and at least 14 states now have some measure of public campaign financing funded through a tax return checkoff system under which $1 or

Three other states, including Massachusetts, permit taxpayers to chip in $1 beyond their tax liability for public campaign financing. This extra levy helps explain the low participation -- less than 3 percent -- of those filing returns in the commonwealth. The national participation rate is about 28 percent.

The Bay State reform proposal calls for a $2 "write-off." It also would sharply reduce the amount of private money a candidate could accept from any source.

Mr. Ward, a former Amherst College president, notes that much of the corruption uncovered involved large payments either directly or indirectly given to election campaigns of prominent public officials.

Sponsors of the $2 tax write-off contend that the lost potential revenue would amount to only an estimated $5.8 million over the next four years in a state whose current annual budget is $6 billion.

Three of four commission-drafted measures were enacted into law last summer. They revamp the system for choosing architects and contractors for state and county projects, create an office of inspector general to oversee the process and ferret out any wrongdoing, and impose tough penalties for contract cheating.

The office of inspector general is given limited power of subpoena but less freedom of action than recommended by the special commission. The measure, as reshaped by the legislature, requires the post be filled by unanimous agreement of the governor, attorney general, and state auditor. The governor and auditor have nominated one man, the attorney general wants someone else -- and they so far have not settled the impasse .

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