BOSTON – A bill overhauling campaign finance rules for legislative candidates passed the House on Tuesday over the objection of Republicans and a small number of Democrats who saw the move as a “power play” by leaders to further limit the influence of Republicans on Beacon Hill.
While many Republicans cheered the proposed switch to a reporting system that would require more frequent disclosures of campaign fundraising and spending, GOP leaders objected to changes in the way the director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance is chosen.
The bill would create a new commission in charge of hiring the director of OCPF that would no longer include the chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo and other supporters said the change would prevent a situation like the one occurring in Washington, D.C., where the Federal Elections Commission has too few members to conduct business.
“I think taking party chairs, both Democrats and Republicans, out of the process is depoliticizing the process. I think it’s the right thing to do,” DeLeo said.
Critics, however, said the reform had the potential to silence Republicans, with no guarantee that anyone in charge of hiring the state’s top campaign finance regulator was a member of the state’s second largest political party.
The bill passed 121-35.
“We have a system that has worked for half a century in Massachusetts, but now, because of personality or a potential personality problem, we need to go change it?” asked House Minority Leader Brad Jones.
Jones appeared to be making reference to new MassGOP Chairman Jim Lyons, a conservative firebrand and former member of the House who has, at times, been to the right of and at odds with prominent members of his party, including Gov. Charlie Baker.
Rep. Marc Lombardo, a Billerica Republican, also suggested that changes to the hiring process at OCPF were added because Democratic leaders “don’t like” Lyons.
“The deck is already stacked,” Lombardo complained, gesturing to the voting boards as an illustration of the imbalance of power in the House. “This really is ridiculous.”
The bill (H 4087) would newly require legislators and candidates for House and Senate seats to set up depository committees with a bank, similar to statewide candidates. Itemized disclosures would be filed quarterly for the first 18 months of the two-year election cycle, and before the primary and general elections of an election year.
The number of reports for each candidate would increase from five per cycle to nine, and banks would also have to report contribution and expenditure balances monthly.
The controversial part of the bill, however, had to do with how the director of OCPF is hired. OCPF Director Michael Sullivan, who has held the job since 1994, was reappointed to new six-year term last November, but there is rampant speculation at the State House that he may soon retire.
“This is an obvious power play to eliminate any say that the minority party has when it comes to selecting the next OCPF director,” Lyons said Wednesday morning before the vote.
The bill proposed to create a new, five-person commission that includes the governor, attorney general and secretary of state, as well as an elected municipal and an elected county official picked by a majority of the three statewide officeholders.
No more than three of the five commissioners could be members of the same party, and four votes would be required to hire a new director. Nothing in the bill prevents the municipal or county official from being unenrolled or a member of a non-major party.
“We felt it was time to bring in elected officials who were held accountable to the system and a diverse group and we think we’re increasing minority participation on the board to two out of the five,” said Rep. John Lawn, the co-chair of the Election Laws Committee.
Jones and other Republicans filed amendments to either keep components of the current system, or ensure that a Republican has a seat on the new commission. “This can be weaponized,” warned Rep. Shawn Dooley, a Norfolk Republican.
The GOP leaders, however, could only muster a smattering of Democratic votes to their side, mostly from conservative Democrats and members who have been critical of DeLeo and House leadership.
“What we’re doing today will take away the stalemate possibility,” said Rep. Michael Day, a Stoneham Democrat.
Lawn also dismissed the argument that Democrats were trying to fix a system that isn’t broken.
He pointed out that the current OCPF commission is supposed to include a dean of a Massachusetts law school, appointed by the governor, but hasn’t had one for close to 10 years.
“I think it’s broken right away when you say we can’t get a law school dean to participate in the commission in close to 10 years,” Lawn said. He said he didn’t know why Baker or previous governors had not made the appointment.
The bill also proposes to create a legislative commission led by Lawn and Sen. Barry Finegold, the co-chairs of the Election Laws Committee, to study the feasibility of allowing candidates to use political funds to pay for child care.
The idea has been pitched in the past as a way to open the political system to more people, including single parents and women who see the cost of child care as an impediment to running for public office.