THE HOUSE APPROVED legislation on Wednesday making a number of reforms to state campaign finance laws, one of which was attacked by GOP lawmakers as an “asinine,” unnecessary bid to oust the Trump-loving chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party from the commission that appoints the state’s top political fundraising regulator.
The bill contains a number of provisions that most lawmakers embraced – new, more rigorous campaign finance reporting requirements, the addition of small-town mayors to the list of officials subject to regulation by the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, and the establishment of a commission to study whether politicians should be able to use campaign finance funds to pay for child care.
The provision that stirred controversy was one that changed the way the executive director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance is selected. The current process requires a unanimous vote of the chairs of the Democratic and Republican state parties, the secretary of state, and the dean of a law school chosen by the governor. (The last position has been vacant for a number of years.)
The new provision, which was added to the bill last week and never went through the hearing process, would create a new five-member commission of elected officials. The governor, attorney general, and secretary of state would automatically be members of the commission and they would round out the group by jointly picking an elected municipal and county official. No more than three of the five members of the commission could be members of the same party, but there is no requirement that any of them be Republican; the other two could be unenrolled. Four votes would be required to name a new executive director.
Democrats have suggested the change is needed to put elected officials who are responsive to voters in charge of selecting the state’s campaign finance regulator and to make sure the commission doesn’t end up stalemated for political reasons. But Republicans saw the move as a way to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.
Rep. Bradley Jones Jr. of Reading, the leader of the House Republicans, filed an amendment to eliminate the commission change. He said the current system has worked well for nearly half a century and he saw no reason to change it now. He said Democrats on Beacon Hill are fond of saying they are more bipartisan than their counterparts in Washington, but he said the campaign finance proposal puts the lie to that claim.
“Today we’re deciding to be more like Washington with this proposal,” he said. “It’s called asinine. It’s ridiculous.
Rep. John Lawn of Watertown, a Democrat and the House chair of the Elections Committee, defended the change while acknowledging that there has been no problem with the current system. “We’re not saying it’s broken,” he said.
Both Jones and Republican Rep. Marc Lombardo of Billerica suggested that the real target of the change was Jim Lyons, the head of state Republican Party. Lyons, who represented Andover in the House until last year, is a fan of President Trump and a conservative whose policy stances have often put him at odds with Democrats, Gov. Charlie Baker, and many members of his own party.
Lombardo called the legislative change “a power play” and said it was being pushed because Beacon Hill lawmakers don’t like Lyons. Jones chalked it up to a “personality or a potential personality problem.”
The vote on Jones’s amendment to eliminate the provision was 45 in favor and 107 against. A number of progressive Democrats sided with the Republicans, including Mike Connolly of Cambridge, Nika Elugardo of Jamaica Plain, Tami Gouveia of Acton, Jonathan Hecht of Watertown, Russell Holmes of Boston, Denise Provost of Somerville, Maria Robinson of Framingham, and Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton.
Republicans filed a series of other amendments to the bill, but they were all defeated. The final vote approving the bill was 121-35. The bill now goes to the Senate.
Michael Sullivan, the current executive director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, was appointed to a new six-year term last year, but he has indicated he may step down before his term is up, possibly soon. Sullivan’s spokesman said the office had no role in developing the provision dealing with the appointment of a new director and wasn’t aware of its existence until recently.
Lyons, reached after the vote, said passage of the provision was typical of the type of power moves that take place on Beacon Hill. He said it would be outrageous if Democrats were ousting the head of the state Republican Party from the body that appoints the state’s campaign finance regulator just because they don’t like him.
“I can’t imagine someone saying they don’t like me, can you?” he asked, laughing.