POLITICIANS are seldom a retiring lot, especially in Massachusetts, but this year a lot of them are retiring. At least 18 public officials are calling it quits, at least for the immediate future. Perhaps the best known of these Bay Staters leaving their elective chairs voluntarily at year's end are US House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr., state Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti, and state Auditor John J. Finnegan.
Others include state Sen. Jack H. Backman (D) of Brookline; state Reps. Nicholas J. Buglione (D) of Methuen, William A. Carey (D) of Easthampton, Salvator Ciccarelli (D) of Watertown, Frank N. Costa (D) of Adams, John F. Cuscak (D) of Arlington, Bruce N. Freeman (R) of Chelmsford, Thomas J. Vallely (D) of Boston, and Robert A. Vigneau (D) of Burlington; and Suffolk County Sheriff Dennis Kearney of Boston.
While some of those heading for either voluntary or involuntary retirement will be back seeking some office at some time in the future, others are about as likely to run for office again as they are to become steeplejacks.
That raises the question of what is to become of any unspent campaign funds they might have left in their political accounts.
Under state law any money unused by a candidate in his or her electoral pursuits can be kept, and even added to through fund-raisers, to help bankroll future campaigns for the same or any other office. None of it, however, can be shifted legally to the personal assets of the officeholder or candidates.
Attorney General Bellotti and Auditor Finnegan, whose combined unexpended campaign assets exceed $700,000, clearly have no intention of turning it in. Mr. Finnegan has indicated he would like to run for governor someday, and Mr. Bellotti is keeping open all his options for a future return to the campaign trail. Were either to declare his retirement, he would have no choice but to empty his campaign coffers.
The Bay State's ``you-can't-take-it-with-you'' law, however, is almost as porous as chicken wire. It allows a former officeholder or candidate to keep his campaign account alive and draw on it from time to time for various expenses intended to enhance his image.
Many retired politicians in the past have used whatever is left in their campaign coffers to entertain people instead of turning it over to the state.
At least scores, and probably hundreds, of retired elective officials and unsuccessful candidates are clearly in no hurry to close out their campaign cupboards by dissolving their sometimes long-dormant fund-raising committees.
What may be needed is a tightening of the law, including less flexibility on how a retired elected official or candidate can use any remaining campaign funds. Also surely worthy of consideration is a time limit on how long anyone can hold on to a political account after his or her most recent campaign.
Legislation pending in the state Senate would allow a political retiree to turn over unused campaign money to a favorite charity or have it go to the ex-candidate's home city or town, rather than to the state's local-aid fund.
A better arrangement might be to require that unspent funds be returned to donors, on a proportional basis, after each campaign. That would prevent officeholders from building up substantial campaign reserves over the years, even when they perennially faced little or no ballot opposition.
Prospects for such a restriction, however, are slim. What might be more acceptable to Massachusetts lawmakers would be using the leftover campaign funds to help finance state and municipal elections.