January 31, 2012
By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JAN. 31, 2012….Campaign fundraising receptions during state budget season, a practice that has turned heads on Beacon Hill over the years, would be prohibited for all lawmakers to prevent any real or perceived “undue influence,” according to the bill’s chief sponsor.
Sen. James Eldridge (D-Acton) said he wants to prevent any perceived problems of influence peddling by banning lawmakers from holding fundraising events one week before budget deliberations, the week during, and one week after a legislative branch considers the state’s $30 billion-plus annual budget.
The bill (S 1574) makes it illegal for a lawmaker or their political committee to hold fundraising receptions during annual budget deliberations, but it would not apply to supplemental budget debates that come up throughout the year.
Any campaign contributions received during the period outlined in the bill would have to be returned, and the matter would be referred to the appropriate ethics committee, the bill stipulates.
Eldridge said the bill would eliminate uneasiness by the public that the budget is influenced at fundraising events during those times.
“Let’s move away from the perception that fundraising is done for what happens or doesn’t happen in the budget,” Eldridge told lawmakers on the Joint Committee on State Administration and Oversight, which is reviewing the bill.
Eldridge last year was criticized by some Senate colleagues after he offered an amendment during casino legalization debate restricting lawmakers from working for casinos for five years after they leave office. The Senate ultimately agreed to a one-year cooling off period, which made it into law, but only after three senators ripped the five-year plan as an unfair indictment of the integrity of all elected officials.
The week prior and the week during budget deliberations are active periods when lawmakers are filing scores of amendments to the state budget, Eldridge said Tuesday.
“The reality is, inevitably, what happens every budget season, there is a story about how a particular legislator is raising money just before or during budget deliberations, and then sometimes something will be seen in the budget that might have benefitted that particular person raising money at that event,” Eldridge said Tuesday morning after testifying on the bill. “Let’s avoid that perception and undue influence by banning that kind of practice.”
During the hearing, Rep. Steven Levy (R-Marlborough) said he is not sure the bill would change anything.
“I’m not sure what we really change,” Levy said during the hearing. “How does this law fix the real problem of undue influence on the budget process?”
Rep. Michael Brady (D-Brockton), another committee member, said after the hearing he was “looking into it.”
“I know sometimes it is difficult to raise funds, but anything we can do to protect the consumer confidence,” he said.
Brady said he has never heard any complaints or concerns about fundraisers during budget season.
A few other lawmakers, who did not attend the hearing, thought the bill a good idea.
Rep. Marcos Devers (D-Lawrence) said he was not aware of the proposal, but thought was a good idea to help with “transparency” of the budget process.
“I think that would be a sound and healthy idea,” Devers said. “We have to be objective and fair.”
Rep. Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge) called it a “reasonable” proposal, but said she was unsure it would change anything.
“Will it make a huge difference? I don’t think so. Maybe with a perception problem,” Wolf said, adding that she typically does not hold fundraisers during budget week because it is too busy.
Another bill before the committee, dubbed the “anti-pay to play” bill, would prohibit corporate executives, whose companies are vying for state contracts, from personally donating to any statewide or legislative campaigns.
Eldridge, who also filed this bill (S 1577), said it would help restore public confidence in the wake of former House Speaker Sal DiMasi’s conviction in a public corruption case involving state contracts.
Eldridge first filed the bill in 2009 shortly before the DiMasi revelations, but it failed to gain any traction in the Legislature and was sent to a study.
After testifying on the bill, Eldridge said he has not received any indications it would make it any further this session. “I think the question we all have to ask is if the company seeking a contract with the state should be allowed, even legally, to make a donation to a campaign because of the perception that creates of undue influence,” Eldridge said after the hearing.