House backs new top donor disclosure rules, special election fundraising limits

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STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JUNE 22, 2016…..Political billboards and mailers would need to include a list of the top five donors to the organization that paid for them under a bill passed by the House on Wednesday.

Rep. John Mahoney, a Worcester Democrat who chairs the Election Laws Committee, said the requirement would build on a law passed last session mandating the disclosure of top donors on television and print ads.

“This captures many organizations that previously evaded disclosure and will allow voters to have a better understanding of the voices behind the advertisements that they receive in their mailboxes and the signs they see on the road,” Mahoney said. “Here in our commonwealth we must do what we can to bring transparency to where the money funding elections is coming from.”

Only contributions above of $5,000 would need to be listed.

The bill (H 542) was among a trio of campaign finance bills the House passed on Wednesday. Also approved were changes to contribution limits to candidates who run in a special election the same year as a general elections (H 542) and to disclosure requirements for in-kind contributions from political committees (H 541). Under the proposed new contribution limits, candidates who run in a special election and a regularly scheduled election in the same year can collect maximum $1,000 contributions from donors for each contest, rather than just a one-time donation.

All five House members who ran in special elections earlier this year – Reps. Jay Livingstone, Stephan Hay, Gerard Cassidy, Thomas Walsh and Dan Cahill – voted “present” on the contribution limits bill.

The bills “tighten potential loopholes that could result in abuses of campaign finance law,” Mahoney said.

The disclosure bill for billboards and mailers passed on a 142-10 vote, with only Republicans voting in opposition.

Rep. James Lyons, an Andover Republican, described the donor disclosure requirement as a way to go after speech that lawmakers do not like.

“I really am getting to appreciate my colleagues in the majority party who clearly don’t like the fact that there are Republicans and Democratic groups out there who sometimes don’t like what goes on in this Legislature, and what this bill is is exactly what I am seeing happening time and time again,” Lyons said on the House floor. “This is a bill that is going to chill free speech.”

One of the groups that would be affected by the bill is the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a group organized as a non-partisan non-proft organization that often sends out mailings critical of Democratic lawmakers.

“This is an attempt to go after Mass. Fiscal Alliance,” said Paul Craney, the group’s executive director. “It’s a solution in search of a problem, but there’s a lot of consequences to that and if you look at the party lines, I’d argue that it’s going to affect both Democrat and Republican organizations and different entities that get involved in public policy.”

The top donor disclosure mandate would apply to any “independent expenditure or electioneering communication” made via direct mail or billboard. Electioneering communications, according to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, refer to a “clearly identifiable” candidate and are distributed within 90 days of an election in which that candidate is running.

Craney told the News Service he could imagine situations in which non-political organizations could accidentally run afoul of a new law — for instance, if a hospital or animal shelter sent out mail announcing a policy-related talk with a lawmaker in the weeks before an election.

Craney called the bill’s passage a “missed opportunity,” as lawmakers did not also address a campaign finance rule that allows unions to donate up to $15,000 to one political candidate in a year, while individuals are capped at $1,000 and direct contributions from businesses are forbidden.

A hearing is set for Dec. 7 in a lawsuit filed against the state campaign finance office by businesses owned by Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance Chairman Rick Green and MassFiscal clerk and director Michael Kane over the higher limit for unions.

Craney said he expected to see “a lot of problems” arise from the donor disclosure bill, and suggested MassFiscal could explore legal action there as well.

“We will look at this in that same type of lens and see if we think it’s something to go to court to fix,” he said.

Copyright 2016 State House News Service

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