Senate Elections Bill Allows Bigger Donations, Forces Disclosure

With the September primary elections seven weeks away, the Senate on Tuesday will debate a revised campaign finance bill that would force super PACs into the timely disclosure of contributors in an attempt by lawmakers to add transparency to the political process in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

The bill would double the individual campaign contribution limit to $1,000 a year, but the first change to the donation limits in 20 years would not take effect until January. The bill also allows state committees to set up legal defense funds, and authorizes statewide candidate committees to donate up to $100 to another candidate, but not more than an aggregate total of $1,500 a year to other candidates.

The revised bill was released Monday by the Senate Committee on Ethics and Rules, chaired by Majority Leader Stanley Rosenberg, and scheduled for debate on Tuesday. A similar bill cleared the House in late June.

The bill would require super PACs, which are independent expenditure committees allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, to disclose the sources of their funding within seven days of making an expenditure. That disclosure window would shrink to 24 hours starting 10 days before a primary or general election.

"We tried to keep it fairly close," Rosenberg said Monday, referring to relatively small number of changes his committee made to the House bill.


The 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, as they seek to influence the outcomes of elections.

Several super PACs have already been established in Massachusetts with an eye toward the fall elections, and one group funded by the American Federation of Teachers spent heavily in the final days of last year's mayoral election in Boston without revealing the source of the funding until after election day.

Despite some outside lobbying for changes to requirements that super PACs list their top five donors at the end of television, Internet or print ads, Rosenberg said the committee bill preserves the House language and adds a requirement that ad sponsors also include a statement directing viewers to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance website for more detailed information on donors.

The revised bill also makes clear that the "top 5" requirement applies to super PAC ads run in connection with ballot questions, but does not cover radio advertisements.

"It's a terrific bill. I'm glad the top five donor disclosure is in there. I think it's a clearer, more enforceable provision," said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.

Wilmot said she hoped the differences with the House could be ironed out quickly after Tuesday's expected favorable vote, preferably without going to a six-member conference committee.

"We really need this for the upcoming elections. There's going to be an astronomical amount of money spent by super PACs and other outside groups and we really need this information," Wilmot said.

The bill's release was delayed by about a week as Senate leaders considered changes to the House legislation, including suggestions made by Secretary of State William Galvin to close a loophole that has allowed some candidates to withhold the names of individual donors until the end of a reporting cycle even though they have already deposited the funds into their campaign accounts. Galvin said some Republican candidates have been exploiting the loophole, including his opponent David D'Arcangelo.

"We took a look at that and think that's a good idea," said Rosenberg, adding that it might get added on the floor through an amendment.

Rosenberg also said that the bill does not address Galvin's concerns about complying with a new law before the Sept. 9 primary that requires the transliteration of candidate names on Boston ballots into Chinese and Vietnamese, but said he expected an amendment to be filed for that as well.

One section added by Rosenberg's committee would require, starting in 2015, that the voter guides mailed to citizens prior to an election including a brief note written by the Executive Office of Administration and Finance explaining the expected impact of a ballot question on state and municipal government finances.

While the bill does not change the maximum cash contribution limit of $50, it does allow contributions of up to $100 by money order or bank check. Wilmot said she believed her organization "could live with" the change because money orders and bank checks "can still be traced, even if it's more difficult."