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Massachusetts clamps a $1,000 lid on PAC contributions

PUBLIC offices are not for sale in Massachusetts. That's the word from Beacon Hill, and it's official. After years of hemming and hawing, state lawmakers have clamped a lid on how much special-interest groups can contribute to political campaigns. The bill, signed into law Nov. 24, should be a major milestone on the road to guaranteeing integrity in government.

But much depends on how it is enforced and whether those restricted by it abide by its spirit as well as its letter. That's where the State Office of Campaigns and Political Finance and outside watchdogs, like Common Cause Massachusetts, come in.

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The new law, similar to those on the books in 17 other states, puts a $1,000 ceiling on what a political-action committee (PAC) can contribute to a candidate. Previously there was no state limit. In last year's election campaign, at least 14 incumbent legislators received more from a PAC than will be allowed in the future.

While some might argue that a ban on all contributions from special interests is needed, it may be unrealistic to expect that elimination of this campaign-funding source would work.

Under the new arrangement, a PAC is under no greater restriction than an individual contributor, who cannot chip in more than $1,000 a year to any candidate. It is hard to imagine that any candidate, incumbent or challenger, could be bought by a donation of $1,000. Federal law limits contributions to candidates for president and Congress to the same amount.

Although several Bay State lawmakers played a major role in finally getting the law enacted, special credit belongs to Reps. Lawrence R. Alexander (D) of Marblehead and John A. Businger (D) of Brookline and to Sens. Argeo Paul Cellucci (R) of Hudson and Paul J. Sheehy (D) of Lowell.

Despite their enthusiasm and leadership, however, it is questionable whether the measure would have passed without the not-so-invisible efforts of Common Cause. This increasingly effective grass-roots lobbying force has been solidly behind limiting PAC contributions. It helped keep the heat on individual senators and representatives earlier this year when it appeared the legislation might again fail.

The PAC-limit statute was a major recommendation of the so-called Ward Commission, which probed wrongdoing in connection with state planning and construction contracts in the 1970s. That panel, in its final report in 1980, criticized the corruptive influence of large campaign donations on the political process.

Although Gov. Michael Dukakis was not that visible in the push for passage, there was never any doubt he would sign the measure enthusiastically. Since first coming to public office nearly a quarter century ago, the Brookline Democrat has supported efforts to restrict the size of campaign contributions. He has also made it a point not to accept PAC funds.

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This policy, however, appears to have posed no problem in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Thus far he has raised some $9 million; that's more than any other candidate.

At present there are 239 political-action committees in the Bay State, an increase of about 62 percent in the past four years.

The new law, which passed the House 120 to 14 last month, after clearing the Senate 33 to 2 in July, was opposed by the Republican legislative leadership. GOP dissent stemmed largely from the limitations of $3,000 a year per candidate that the law imposes on the GOP and Democratic state committees. In recent elections the Massachusetts Republican hierarchy has been a major funding source for party candidates, especially those taking on entrenched Democratic incumbents.

Such limitations need not be a hardship for Republicans in the long run. And it will surely force those running for office to raise money on their own, through contributions of $1,000 or less.

To make a reasonable showing, newcomers will have to build campaign teams, instead of relying on others for leadership and funds to fuel their candidacies.

Despite its potential benefits, the new law may not be enough, if all future election campaigns here in the commonwealth are to get their funding largely from small individual donations.

The next step for those who truly want to free the campaign process of reliance on special interests might be to rally behind a bill that would restrict how much a PAC can contribute to all campaigns in a given year. Better still, why not put a limit on how much a candidate can receive in total PAC donations?

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