Commonwealth Magazine: Super PAC bill may be too late to cover governor’s race

The Massachusetts Legislature is likely to take up a campaign finance package that would impose stricter disclosure rules on super PACs soon, but the new regulations are unlikely to take effect before November’s gubernatorial contest.

“We want to do a bill that addresses campaign finance, especially super PACs and dark money,” said Sen. Barry Finegold, co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Election Laws. “We all want to get as much transparency into the [system] as we can.”

Boston’s recent mayoral race showed that the practice of politics had eclipsed the rules regulating it. The race was awash in money from outside groups, most of whom faced far looser rules than the candidates themselves.

The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, and the court cases that followed, enabled outside groups to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence political campaigns. The super PACs that those rulings created, along with a host of labor unions, poured $4 million into last November’s mayoral contest — an unprecedented amount, considering the city’s size.

In most cases, the super PACs active in Boston’s mayoral race disclosed their donors to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) weeks after Election Day, and well after they’d helped to shape the election’s outcome. And in the case of One Boston, the disclosures were nearly useless: The mysterious PAC that appeared out of nowhere, dropped $480,000 on television commercials promoting Marty Walsh’s candidacy, and in January, disclosed that its funds came from a New Jersey PAC that doesn’t file any sort of campaign finance disclosures with Garden State regulators. The American Federation of Teachers eventually disclosed that it had funded One Boston’s efforts, but the admission came in a Boston Globe story, not in a state campaign finance filing.

By comparison, statewide and major mayoral candidates file donor disclosures twice per month in the run-up to an election.

Sen. James Eldridge has been pushing a bill for the past two legislative sessions that would require instant disclosure of super PAC fundraising and political spending. (Currently, the PACs report major expenditures to state campaign finance regulators in real time, but only file donor disclosures infrequently.) Eldridge’s bill garnered attention after the Boston mayoral race, when Secretary of State William Galvin threw his weight behind the idea of real-time super PAC disclosure.

The Senate passed Eldridge’s super PAC disclosure bill last session, but it foundered in the House. He’s hopeful that the Boston contest, and prospect of widespread outside spending in this year’s gubernatorial race, will lend some urgency to his legislation. “We want to have something in place, so come spring and summer, when they spend the money, disclosure in place,” said Eldridge, an Acton Democrat.

But Finegold, who co-chairs the elections committee the super PAC bill is sitting in, believes it’s unlikely that the Legislature will be able to put new outside money regulations in place in time to cover November’s state elections.

Finegold, an Andover Democrat who is giving up his seat to run for state treasurer, said his committee will likely take up a campaign finance package later this year, and that new disclosure regulations for super PACs will be a key part of the package. The committee is also weighing whether to raise the state’s $500 campaign contribution cap, which is one of the lowest individual contribution limits in the country. The campaign finance package is stuck in line behind an overhaul of election laws — it would enable online voter registration, sanction early voting, and encourage participation among young voters — that’s now in conference committee.

“We all agree there needs to be more disclosure and more transparency,” Finegold said. “Whether we like it or not, Citizens United is not going away. In any race, whether it’s Democratic, Republican, a mayor’s race, this type of campaign will be a part of it. So we’re going to try to get as much disclosure and transparency as we can.”

At the same time, Finegold added, “I doubt what we do, either on the election law side or the campaign finance side, will have any direct effect on this election. To get it through House, Senate, governor, then to turn around and put it on OCPF, it’s a lot to ask. I don’t want to put a burden on Secretary Galvin, OCPF, and the town clerks.”

The 2010 gubernatorial election was the state’s first after the Citizens United decision. It saw a marked shift away from direct spending by the candidates themselves, and toward spending by outside groups. A group aligned with the Democratic Governors Association and the Massachusetts Teachers Association combined to spend $6.2 million to advance Gov. Deval Patrick’s reelection effort, while the Republican Governors Association spent $4.6 million attacking Patrick and state Treasurer Tim Cahill, who ran for governor as an independent.

Gubernatorial campaign advisers are bracing for a 2014 contest that’s even more saturated with outside money than 2010 was. The Democratic and Republican governors associations are likely to reappear. EMILY’s List, which just endorsed candidates for Massachusetts attorney general and treasurer, spent more than $640,000 on Martha Coakley’s 2010 Senate campaign. Three new state super PACs have formed since January: one controlled by the Massachusetts Teachers Association; a Global Warming Solutions PAC promising to spend money on behalf of pro-environment candidates; and the innocuously-named Mass. Independent Expenditure PAC, a committee organized to “communicate with voters about gubernatorial candidates prior to the November 2014 election,” according to paperwork filed with campaign finance regulators.

Steve Crawford, a spokesman for the Mass. Independent Expenditure PAC, told CommonWealth that the committee is still forming, and that it will be “forthcoming” about its expenditures and membership as the organization begins takes shape. Crawford, who has long worked in Democratic and union circles, said the PAC is “not aligned with any individual candidate or issue.”

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