Massachusetts's highest court is...refereeing a campaign reform fight with constitutional implications that has angry voter groups in one corner and a stubborn legislature in the other. Massachusetts Campaign Finance Reform Melee

Massachusetts’s highest court is now refereeing a campaign reform fight with constitutional implications that has angry voter groups in one corner and a stubborn legislature in the other.

The Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments on Thursday, February 8, 2002, outlining proposed remedies to end the gridlock on the state’s Clean Elections Law, set to go into effect this election cycle. The mess began in 1998 when voters passed a ballot measure to implement a law that would allow candidates in state elections to receive public funding if they adhere to strict fund-raising and spending restrictions.

The ballot measure did not provide for a specific funding mechanism, subjecting it to the legislative appropriations process. Since passage of the law over three years ago, it has been reported that approximately $20 million was initially set aside, but no further revenue has been appropriated. That amount is far from enough to fund mainstream candidates, not to mention those now coming out of the woodwork, grubbing for their stake of the campaign treasure trove. Without the funds necessary to put the law into practice, it is basically rendered useless.

On January 25, the court handed down a 5-2 decision, ruling that the legislature is violating the state constitution by neglecting to appropriate money necessary to implement the measure. The court ruled that the lawmakers have two choices: fund the law or repeal it.

As a result of that ruling, The Boston Globe reports that state lawmakers are discussing four options which include repealing the law, putting it before the voters again, exempting candidates running for the state legislature, and appropriating $70 million in taxpayer funds to implement it. They are also counting votes to see if they have enough to override an inevitable veto by Governor Jane Swift of any attempt to repeal the law. The Globe further reports that opponents of the measure are "furiously polling" representatives to see which of the options will be the most viable.

It is not clear what solution policymakers will be able to agree on, if any. If they don’t act quickly, however, the court must continue its task of balancing the rights of the voters (who have a right under Massachusetts law to qualify and vote on ballot measures) with the rights of a legislative branch that sees this as a law unworthy of funding.

February 8, 2002
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