Cleaning Up A Dirty Business

Massachusetts legislature should fund voter-approved Clean Elections Law

The Supreme Judicial Court’s laudable ruling on Friday that the Massachusetts Legislature must either fund or repeal the commonwealth’s Clean Elections Law should finally force Beacon Hill lawmakers to implement a system that will allow some candidates access to public funds in statewide political races.

The Clean Elections Law, a ballot initiative that was directly approved by Massachusetts voters by a 2-to-1 margin in 1998, would encourage more competition in state political races by providing public funds to candidates who, having met certain standards of popularity, agree to spending limits for their campaigns. This seeks to remedy a political climate where challenges to incumbent state representatives and senators are extremely rare. The law was passed by an electorate that made an informed decision about their state campaign finance system—a decision that the legislature should respect by appropriating the funds that would put the law into effect. As it stands now, though the Clean Elections law is on the books, the refusal by politicians to fund it makes it useless. The high court’s principled ruling that flouting the will of the voters is contrary to the spirit of the Massachusetts Constitution is the first step toward restoring the transparency in government that the voters desired when they approved the law in the first place.

However, House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran (D-Mattapan) has abused his power by blocking any attempt to implement the law. Finneran has prevented funding proposals for Clean Elections from seeing the light of day while the $23 million already in the Clean Elections account goes unspent. While we recognize that the state budget is spread thin during this recession, this does not mean that voters’ funding priorities, as expressed in the referendum that approved this law, are any less valid than those of the members of the legislature.

This is a gubernatorial election year, in which the Clean Elections system should stand its first test. By delaying implementation for so long, the legislature has already hindered the planning processes of the candidates. The fact that Thomas F. Birmingham ’72, the president of the State Senate, has entered the gubernatorial race introduces further questions about the motives of lawmakers trying to bury this law.

In light of legislative leaders’ apparent effort to ignore the ruling, the court could step in and order the funding as a judicial remedy, or even postpone the gubernatorial elections until the system is in place. Such extreme measures would never have been needed if the legislature had simply abided by the law enacted by the voters. Its behavior in this matter simply serves to underscore the reason that Massachusetts voters needed to resort to an ballot initiative instead of a legislative bill in the first place: self-interested politicians who are more concerned with protecting the potency of their incumbency than by representing their constituents. We hope that the court’s ruling will impress upon the legislature the gravity of the offense they have committed against the sensibilities of the electorate and cause them to expeditiously approve Clean Elections funding.