Bay State politics roiled by funding of clean elections

Massachusetts is selling state assets to finance a voter-mandated law – will lawmakers' sofas be next?

Want to buy a slightly-used station wagon, an old state armory, or perhaps the sofa where Massachusetts' legislative leader sits? Now's the time to bid.

There's a court-ordered fire sale of Massachusetts state property under way, the latest round in a nasty battle over how to fund the state's clean-election law.

What began in 1998 as a campaign-finance-reform victory has devolved into a constitutional standoff, pitting the powerful speaker of the House against the state's highest court.

By a 2-to-1 margin, voters approved public funding for candidates who pledge to limit their fundraising and spending. Massachusetts is now one of four states with such laws. Passing the referendum, though, proved to be the easy part.

Lawmakers, led by House Speaker Thomas Finneran, have refused to appropriate any of the $23 million that was to be set aside for candidates. At a time when the state faces a $2 billion budget gap, Mr. Finneran calls public campaign finance "nonsense," and the candidates who need it "pathetic." After candidates sued for the money, the state's Supreme Judicial Court ruled in January that the legislature had to either fund the clean-election law or repeal it.

Showdowns between branches of government over how best to spend money aren't unusual. Lawmakers and judges in a number of states – including neighboring New Hampshire, for instance – are locked in battles over how to fund public schools. But seldom does a legislature so brazenly ignore a court mandate, observers say.

"It's a dance between the courts and the legislature about how far they can push this," says Lawrence Friedman, a lecturer at Harvard Law School.

In the latest episode of the clash, a state high-court justice ruled candidates could demand the sale of state property to obtain the money candidates were promised. So last weekend, 13 station wagons and SUVs used by the state lottery commission were auctioned off for $176,800.

That still leaves tens of thousands more owed to four candidates who have already qualified for public financing. Having already obtained a minimum number of contributions, each has agreed to limit total campaign spending and put a $100 ceiling on individual donations. Another 31 candidates had registered to seek public funding, but several have dropped out of the program, citing the delay, according to Denis Kennedy of the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

Gubernatorial candidate Warren Tolman, who is trailing well behind the leaders, has collected $719,000 in public money, but is still owed more than $100,000 by the state.

"I never anticipated it would be this difficult and it would come to selling off state vehicles," says Mr. Tolman.

Lawyers representing Tolman and other candidates are now eyeing a list of 80 armories and shuttered hospitals, but promise not to sell off any parks or historic artifacts.

And to make sure lawmakers don't go unscathed, they're also looking at their prized Beacon Hill parking spots and office furniture.

Finneran's coffee table, lamp, end table, bookcase, sofa, and five chairs should bring enough to pay the $8,100 owed one state legislative candidate, predicts David Donnelly, director of the Massachusetts Voters for Clean Elections.

"Just like any other debtor-creditor situation, we get to identify which property gets seized and sold at auction," Mr. Donnelly says. "We don't think legislatures' furniture or parking spaces have any special exemption."

Targeted lawmakers aren't amused. Rep. Joseph Wagner, who chairs the Elections Laws committee, recently moved his desk and faded-blue sofa into a statehouse hallway in protest while clutching a photo of Mr. Tolman.

"If these small-minded, special-interest folks think selling my desk or anyone else's desk is going to propel that candidacy or any others to new heights, they certainly can have the desk," Wagner told reporters. "They cannot, however, have my spirit."

Wagner then put the desk in storage until a state judge sorts out whether his furniture can be put under the auctioneer's gavel to be sold to the highest bidder.

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