Clean Elections experiment fizzles

Posted: Wednesday, August 06, 2003

BOSTON Five years ago, Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a Clean Elections law designed with the lofty goal of diminishing the influence of big-money special interests.

But the turbulent political experiment fizzled to an end in June, leaving organizers pondering why a law that has been so successful in Maine and Arizona was such a spectacular failure here.

Approved in a 1998 referendum, the Clean Elections law offered taxpayer money to candidates who agreed to spending and fund-raising limits. But it drew intense opposition from lawmakers who did not want to fund the law.

As a result, the law leaves behind a dubious legacy that includes a fight to sell off the House Speaker's office furniture to pay for the law and one candidate who used his Clean Elections money to run ads highlighting his popularity among other bald citizens.

Despite the law's short and almost farcical history, organizers are already planning their next battle to bring it back.

''The problems aren't going away and neither are we,'' said Joe O'Brien, project director of Massachusetts Voters for Clean Elections, whose group plans to place a retooled version of the law on the ballot in 2006. ''This is an ongoing movement, like the civil rights movement.''

The bill's legislatively orchestrated demise was accomplished without a single lawmaker casting a formal vote on it.

The biggest enemy in the Legislature was House Speaker Tom Finneran, who repeatedly expressed his opposition to using taxpayer funding for political campaigns. Critics have said that publicly funded campaigns, which put challengers on a more equal footing with incumbents, threatened Finneran's hold on power in the Democrat-controlled House.

''If defeating this had been Finneran's fifth highest priority, it would still be law. But instead it was his highest priority,'' said Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, a national reform group dedicated to Clean Elections.

Finneran's spokesperson declined to comment. One of his top lieutenants, Rep. Joseph Wagner, said the reason for Clean Elections' demise was simple.

''It was always clear to me that the taxpaying public didn't want their taxpayer dollars used to fund political campaigns,'' Wagner said. ''The supporters of Clean Elections sold people a bad bill of goods.''

When Finneran and the Legislature refused to set aside money for the law before the 2002 election cycle, the state's highest court authorized Clean Elections advocates to sell surplus state property to raise the necessary money.

At one point, Finneran's furniture, including a loveseat, was targeted, but the court stopped short of allowing that.

The money from the property sales helped fund the Democratic gubernatorial campaign of Warren Tolman, who came in fourth place in the primary. The bald politician used the millions he received to pay for a barrage of television ads, including ones courting bald voters.

Publicly financed campaigns have run into political opposition in Maine and Arizona, the other two states with such laws, but the Massachusetts version encountered a unique confluence of factors that doomed it from the start, national experts say.

These factors included Finneran and an initiative process that keeps the Legislature in control of the purse strings and allows lawmakers to overturn voters' wishes.

In Arizona, nine of the 11 statewide offices are held by publicly funded candidates, as well as five of the 30 state senators and 27 of the 60 House members.

The Arizona law faced court challenges and opposition from the House speaker. But one reason the Arizona law remained on the books was that the Legislature cannot overturn a voter-initiated law its repeal must instead be put on the ballot. Not so in Massachusetts.

In Maine, where more than half of the 186 state lawmakers used public financing in 2002, the opposition has been countered by legislative leaders who support the law's concept and ''are very reluctant to undo something executed by initiative,'' according to Arn Pearson, executive director of the Maine Citizen Leadership Fund.

In both states, voters set aside money for the law as part of the ballot question rather than leaving the funding to the Legislature, as Massachusetts did.

Arizona voters created a dedicated revenue source an additional charge on criminal and civil fines that paid for the law. Maine voters approved $2 million each year to come out of the state's general fund.

''Because we couldn't pass a funding stream through the referendum in Massachusetts, it fell to the Legislature and that's been the bottleneck,'' said Cynthia Ward, director of Northeast Action, a reform group based in Massachusetts.

Organizers planning the law's return argue that there needs to be more education of the public and more pressure on lawmakers to endorse the law.

''This is not going away,'' said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause of Massachusetts. ''This is perhaps the ending of a chapter, but the next one is already in progress.''



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