Conservative think tank files suit over campaign finance law

Another critic of the rule is the group Common Cause

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BOSTON (AP) — A conservative think tank on Tuesday sued the state over a rule that allows unions and certain other groups to make campaign donations of up to $15,000 while barring businesses from making any direct political donations to candidates.

The Arizona-based Goldwater Institute said the lawsuit targets a rule it believes violates the constitutionally protected rights of equal protection and free speech.

The institute filed the suit in Suffolk Superior Court on behalf of two Massachusetts businesses — 1A Auto Inc., an auto parts shop in Pepperell, and 126 Self Storage Inc., a self-storage facility in Ashland. It names the head of the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, Michael Sullivan, as the defendant.

“There is no legitimate justification for allowing unions to contribute thousands of dollars to candidates, parties, and political committees, while completely banning any contributions from businesses,” the lawsuit said.

The Office of Campaign and Political Finance doesn’t comment on pending litigation, a spokesman said.

The lawsuit targets a rule that allows a group that isn’t a political committee and that doesn’t have any corporate money in its general treasury to make direct contributions to political candidates.

Under the rule, the group can donate up to 10 percent of its general fund, up to the $15,000 limit, to a candidate. After that, contributions by the group are limited to $500 donations.

If the group has any corporate backers, they are barred from making any donations under a state law prohibiting corporate contributions to candidates.

The owner of 126 Self Storage, Michael Kane, a director of the conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, said he wants a level playing field between unions and businesses. He said he typically supports fiscally conservative candidates.

“I frequently max out on an individual basis to various candidates,” he said, “but my business can’t give anything.”

While the law refers to any group that doesn’t accept corporate money, in practice those groups are typically unions. That has made the rule a target of conservatives and Republicans.

Last year during Republican Charlie Baker’s successful campaign for governor, he called on lawmakers to close what he said was the loophole in the campaign finance law.

Lawmakers last year passed a bill designed to shine a light on donors to super political action committees, or super PACs, including requiring the top five donors who give more than $5,000 to a PAC be identified in that PAC’s ads, but left the $15,000 rule untouched.

Baker said the donation limit of $15,000 provided to unions “is bad policy and should be corrected.

“There is no justification for permitting one special interest group to be treated any different from other groups or individuals,” he said.

Another critic of the rule is the group Common Cause. While the Goldwater Institute would like the $15,000 rule to apply to businesses, Common Cause wants to see the limit abolished for unions, businesses and everyone else.

“It’s long past time for it to be eliminated,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “Everyone should play by the same rules and the same limits.”

An attorney for the Goldwater Institute, Jim Manley, said eliminating the $15,000 limits for unions and businesses “would only be half a victory.”

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press

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