Are state campaign finance laws irrelevant?

It’s time to overhaul reporting, contribution laws

Over the past 40 years, legislative changes have placed stringent restrictions on individual campaign contributions in Massachusetts. The maximum amount one can contribute to any candidacy in the course of a calendar year is $500; there is also a limitation of $200 if one is a registered lobbyist, as I have been from time to time. Most other states have far less stringent laws.

This is a far cry from the early 1970s, when I was first in public office, and the years prior. At that time, there was a legal loophole that if one were not an announced candidate for office, one could be “honored” at an event, the proceeds of which were reportable only to the IRS. There were no state or municipal reporting requirements whatsoever, nor were there restrictions on receiving corporate contributions or cash. Elected officials subsidized their livelihoods via such events. The late Isadore H. Y. Muchnick remarked that the Boston School Committee was the only job he ever had that had income, but no salary.

Are any of these laws relevant in the current era? For a generation, the most important Supreme Court decision in this area was Buckley v. Vallejo which, briefly stated, held that any individual could spend whatever he wanted of his own money to advance his own candidacy. Most of us did not like that decision, but we at least understood it. In recent years, the 5-4 Citizens United decision opened the floodgates and permitted the spending of unlimited dollars on behalf of candidates at every level. Each day, I receive emails reminding me that the Koch brothers are spending millions of dollars here or there trying to defeat a Democratic member of Congress. We have entered a new era — the wild west of campaign financing. Without any doubt, last year’s mayoral election was the first time where what is generally referred to as “outside money” played an extraordinary role in a Boston election, with some $4 million spent by outside groups to promote the two finalists in the election.

Against that backdrop, is it at all important to know which citizens of Boston or its environs contributed $500 to Marty Walsh or John Connolly, given all the money that went to outside groups trying to influence the outcome, money that could be given pursuant to Citizens United and without any regard to the finance restrictions imposed on candidate campaigns by the Legislature? Does it make any sense for diligent young reporters to scour the financial records of candidates for mayor or any other office to ascertain which developer, which contractor, which city employee, or members of his family, contributed to this candidate or that?

Furthermore, is there any logic whatsoever in the modern era to delaying reporting of such donors for a period well after the election?

Already, a new Democratic PAC has been formed with an eye toward this year’s governor’s race. I expect some of the dollars recently raised at a Republican Governors Association event in Boston will be put to use offsetting whatever the Democratic PAC might be able to spend. According to Common Cause, independent political groups spent $12 million on Massachusetts state elections in 2010. How large will such expenditures be in 2014?

The Legislature faces much important business. That should include a complete review of campaign finance laws. Given the growing influence of outside money, that review should include at least considering raising the personal limit on donations directly to candidates back to $1,000, which could help to at least somewhat even the playing field. Isn’t it also time to update reporting requirements so the average voter can understand where the money is coming from before the polls open at 7 a.m. on Election Day?

Meet the Author

These are issues worthy of discussion in this year’s legislative session.

Lawrence S. DiCara is a partner at Nixon Peabody LLP and served as president of the Boston City Council.