By Matt Murphy and Michael Norton
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- Two decades after lawmakers lowered the annual campaign contribution limit in Massachusetts to $500, Democrats on Beacon Hill are pushing in the midst of an election year for a return to the days when donors could give double that amount as part of bill intended to also force new disclosure requirements on super PACs.
Even though legislators and candidates for statewide office would not benefit from the new rules until next year, the addition of the higher individual donor limits to the bill comes as lawmakers, some of whom are running for statewide offices, are working the phones and function halls to raise money for election bids.
The new disclosure requirements for super PACs, which are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, would go into effect ahead of the fall elections.
"Like anything else, 20 years ago it was 29 cents for a stamp and now it's 50 cents. Prices have gone up and it's more expensive to run a campaign," said Sen. Barry Finegold, the co-chair of the Election Laws Committee and a candidate for treasurer.
Finegold said, "Especially with super PACs you want candidates to be able to compete. It's a consensus of talking to the membership that we have our contribution limits be reflective of the times. My opponents have the same restrictions as I do, but if you talk to anyone we all spend way too much time trying to raise money and that's not good for democracy.
Gov. Deval Patrick called the disclosure requirement for super PACS a "pretty good idea," but had less to say about increasing individual contribution limits.
"I hate the whole business of asking people for money, so I'm probably not a very good commentator on that. We have very restrictive, very constrained campaign finance rules and disclosure rules and they can always be made stronger and this bill seems to be pointing in that direction," Patrick said.
A Massachusetts group focused on open and accountable government is praising the advancement on Beacon Hill of legislation requiring real-time disclosure of super PAC donors, even though the bill includes an increase in individual donation limits that the group opposes.
Under the bill endorsed Wednesday by the Election Laws Committee, super PAC donor disclosure would be required within seven days of running an ad and the top five donors over $5,000 must be listed in the ad itself.
The U.S. Supreme Court's free speech ruling in Citizens United opened up opportunities for super PACs to accept unlimited donations from unions and corporations, as well as wealthy individuals.
If approved, the bill would shed light on an influx of "dark money" expected in this year's race for governor, and could change the dynamics of other high-profile races where outside groups hope to influence outcomes.
"Full disclosure is all the more important when the group has an innocuous name and no public history, but springs up out of thin air to support a specific candidate in a specific race and then dissolves just as quickly as it was formed," Common Cause Massachusetts Executive Director Pam Wilmot said in a statement.
The bill cleared the committee on a 12-3 vote, with Sens. Joan Lovely (D-Salem) and Kenneth Donnelly (D-Arlington) reserving their rights. Reps. Paul Frost (R-Auburn) and Ryan Fattman (R-Webster) and Sen. Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) voted against the bill, according to committee staff.
The committee is co-chaired by Rep. James Murphy, a Weymouth Democrat, and Finegold, an Andover Democrat.
Tarr said he voted against releasing the bill from committee because he felt there were still unanswered questions about the constitutionality of the some of the disclosure requirements that deserved more careful examination that the timeframe for voting allowed.
"I am still prepared to move forward with as much disclosure as possible, but we need to make sure when we're dealing with First Amendment rights that they're considered carefully and respected," Tarr told the News Service on Thursday.
With only 42 days remaining for controversial bills to be considered this session, the legislation faces an uncertain path on Beacon Hill, where the annual budget process is still ongoing and myriad major bills remain unresolved.
"We hope it will be soon," Wilmot said, when asked how quickly she expects the bill to move. "It needs to be in effect as soon as possible and definitely for the fall elections." A similar bill never emerged for a vote in the House in 2012 after it cleared the Senate that year.
The bill approved Wednesday by the Election Laws Committee includes another major change, increasing the amount an individual may donate each year to a candidate from $500 to $1,000, effective Jan. 1, 2015.
In addition to Massachusetts, only Alaska and Montana limit contributions to candidates for statewide office to less than $1,000, though Colorado also has a $550 limit for all statewide offices except candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, who can collect a combined $1,100 for the primary and general elections from individual donors.
Twelve states allow unlimited contributions, according data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, while six states, including, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, have a $1,000 limit. Wyoming's donation limits are due to increase in January from $1,000.
Wilmot in 1994 helped pass a law lowering Massachusetts individual contribution limits to $500 from $1,000. She told the News Service Thursday she opposes increasing the limit but supports the bill. Wilmot said there is "widespread support" for the higher individual donation limit among lawmakers.
Lower donation limits and smaller contributions encourage more people to participate in giving to candidates, Wilmot said, while acknowledging that the costs of campaigns has increased over the years.
Tarr said he supported increasing the contribution limits, but needs more time to consider whether $1,000 is the correct limit.
"I think in some ways out current limit is antiquated, has not kept pace with any of the factors that are involved in those things and I think we should consider a reasonable increase in the contribution limit. I think it's a question of degree, and whether the doubling is the appropriate degree is something we have to seriously consider," Tarr said.
Tarr also said he agreed with Republican gubernatorial Charlie Baker, who has said the state's low contribution limits can make it difficult for Republicans to compete against well-financed Democrats in state where Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one.
"I think it does make it difficult for challengers of either party because it's very difficult at that contribution level to amass enough donors to be able to mount a serious campaign, particularly in a statewide campaign," Tarr said.
The bill also includes measures that Wilmot believes will help the Office of Campaign and Political Finance to track and prevent transfers between political committees that are designed to evade disclosure requirements, though it would free statewide candidates to use their campaign accounts to make donations to other candidates in Massachusetts, so long as they are not receiving public financing.