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The sky's the limit in Massachusetts campaign financing

IF Joseph Kennedy II doesn't become a member of the 100th Congress, it won't be for lack of campaign dollars. No congressional candidate in Massachusetts history has poured more money into his or her electoral pursuits than has the eldest son of former US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Through mid-October the younger Kennedy and his supporters had spent $1,516,752. Whether the same political exposure could have been achieved for less is uncertain. What is certain is that Mr. Kennedy and his lieutenants are taking nothing for granted, even now that he is the Democratic nominee in a district where voter registration favors his party by better than 10 to 1.

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Much of his spending came before the Sept. 16 primary in which he bested nine fellow Democrats, with 52 percent of the vote. But in recent weeks the Kennedy campaign has hardly become a low-budget operation.

Meanwhile, Clark C. Abt, his Republican opponent, has not been a campaign penny-pincher. The self-made millionaire businessman has invested nearly $500,000, a substantial portion of it his own funds, in efforts to reach voters with his message.

Together that adds up to a better than $2 million congressional campaign. Actually it would be much more if the expenses of those candidates weeded out in the primary were included.

But the governor's contest may be even more costly. Democratic incumbent Michael S. Dukakis has raked in more than $3 million and as of last week had spent $2.3 million.

All this spending comes despite a statewide voter-preference sampling indicating that the governor holds a commanding lead over his Republican challenger, George S. Kariotis.

Obviously, Governor Dukakis is taking no chances. But it is questionable whether anything close to what has been spent in his behalf was necessary.

Perhaps what is needed is a firm lid on how much anyone, including an officeholder, can raise and spend. In that way the funding advantage of an incumbent or a candidate with family or other special connections might be greatly lessened.

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A $1 million gubernatorial spending limit, even in these times of high media advertising rates, would seem ample. It might force candidates to make more careful choices in how their dollars are spent. Those relying heavily on professional campaign consultants and highly sophisticated voter polling might have less for media advertising, especially radio and television spots.

Also worth considering is some kind of a cap on what a candidate can spend out of his or her own pocket. Without such restrictions those with the most money would seem to have the best chance.

Most candidates wind up spending, on paper at least, more than they raise. And there is nothing heavier than a campaign debt, especially one incurred by a loser. In all fairness some former candidates do their best to meet their financial obligations. In some instances, however, that takes years, and creditors have little choice but to accept partial payment.

State and federal laws limit how much any one source, other than the candidate, can donate to a campaign. But such statutes may not go far enough.

A better and potentially cleaner approach might be through expanded public campaign financing, invoking matching funds for whatever a candidate has collected through small individual contributions. This would have to be coupled with safeguards to prevent special interests from funneling money into a campaign through members or employees.

Another improvement in the campaign financing system would be an outright ban on holding over unspent contributions from one campaign to another. Whatever is left should be returned to donors on a proportional basis. This, of course, would require more detailed records-keeping on who contributed what. At present neither federal nor state law provides for the listing of all contributors, including lobbyists and their clients who buy tickets to so-called candidate testimonial functions, the receipts from which go into campaign coffers.

No political aspirant should be allowed to raise and spend as much as he or she wants, unless elective offices are to be abandoned to the wealthy or those with ties to special interests.

The Kennedy-Abt and Dukakis-Kariotis campaigns are not the only ones where a lot of funds are being spent by incumbents and challengers alike. The same is true in the state treasurer and attorney general contests.

In the state treasurer's race, for example, Democratic incumbent Robert Q. Crane and his Republican challenger, L. Joyce Hampers, have each spent many times more than what the winner will earn over the next four years in an office that has an annual salary of $60,000.

A tightening of election statutes, with or without increased public funding of campaigns, makes sense and would save a lot of dollars.

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