Clamping a lid on political fund raising in Massachusetts

POLITICAL fund raising is becoming not only big business but a year-round pursuit, especially here in Massachusetts, where candidates are always running for something. Some officeholders and would-be contenders seem to delight in raising money to fill their campaign war chests. Others find it difficult to seek finacial support. But few are timid in accepting aid from various special interests, often through what are called political-action committees, or PACs.

There has to be at least some concern, however, when donations from such sources exceed the number ofindividual contributors. That can ad does happen under current Massachusetts law since there is no limit to how much a PAC or political party can donate to a candidate for state, county, or municipal office.

In contrast, average supporters can give o more than $1,000 in any calendar year to a candidate, no matter how committed they might be to the recipient's election.

It makes little sense for businesses, labor unions, or special interests to be free to give what they want to a candidate, whil other funding sources are restricted.

Many state lawmakers seem to share that view and may be ready to change the situation. Legislation reducing the maximum annual donation a PAC can make to a candidate cleared the Senate on a 33-to-2 roll call in mid-July, much to the delight of its sponsors and Common Cause/Massachusetts. Without the latter's strong grass-roots lobbying it is questionable whether the measure would have gone anywhere.

The next challenge will come in the House, where a similar bill was approved two years ago only t die in the Senate. House passage this time, however, is hardly a forgone conclusion. Foes of such legislation, including some of those who have been generous with their PAC wallets in recent campaigns, may not have the votes to prevent its approval once it comes up for House action.

The strategy thus just might be to stall a bit in bringing it onto the House floor for a vote, in hopes that somehow it could get lost in the shuffle in the waning weeks of the legislative session. Another blocking tactic might be to amend the Senate-passed legislation in the House. That would leave its fate in the hands of a House-Senate conference committee, which could become deadlocked or agree on something weaker than the Common Cause-boosted, Senate-approved legislation. That approach has worked all too often in the past to help lawmakers put themselves on record for certain reforms for which many have little real interest.

Much now could depend on the persistence of the bill's two main lower-chamber sponsors - Reps. John A. Businger (D) of Brookline and Lawrence Alexander (D) of Marblehead.

While Common Cause might prefer an outright ban on special-interest money in Bay State election campaigns, there is little doubt that such a goal at this point is unrealistic. The pending legislation clearly is as far as this citizen lobby could expect to get through this year.

Although Gov. Michael Dukakis has made no commitment, publicly at least, to sign such legislation should it reach his desk, he could be expected to do so. The Massachusetts chief executive has made it clear in the past that he favors a $1,000 ceiling on contributions from any single source.

Presumably those who paid that amount to attend a June 15 Dukakis-for-president fund-raiser wont try to donate a penny more to his candidacy. That is the maximum allowed for personal contributions under federal election laws. Special interests, however, through PACs, can kick it up to $5,000. But Mr. Dukakis has made it a policy not to accept PAC money, unlike some other presidential hopefuls.

In his early, and quite possibly more idealistic, days on the political scene, the governor appeared uncomfortable seeking campaign funds. This he certainly seems to have overcome.

A second big Bay State money-raiser is planned for Sept. 29 at Boston's World Trade Center.

Fund raising by Dukakis, or on his behalf, in the current bid for the nation's highest office brought in $4.22 million during the first three months of his campaign. Another $280,000 he transferred from what was left in his last year's gubernatorial reelection campaign coffers. The nearly $4.6 million in contributions topped that reported during the sme period by others going after the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination.

Despite his current heavy involvement in fund raising, the Bay State governor clearly enjoys this activity less than other areas of campaigning.

The current Dukakis campaign, during its first three months attracted more than 16,000 contributors from 46 states, plus the District of Columbia.

Nearly two-thirds of this support, however, came from within the commonwealth. The average donation to his cause was $256.

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