Back on Baker's desk, money disclosure bill could play role in fall elections


BOSTON >> After House and Senate Democrats beat back attempts by Republicans to implement the legislation at a later date, the Legislature on Sunday night shipped back to Gov. Charlie Baker a bill requiring election mailers and billboards to list the top five donors to the organization that paid for them.

While cheered by open-government advocates as a measure to increase transparency in elections, the bill (H 543) has met pushback from Republicans who have raised fairness issues at multiple stages of the legislative process.

Though the disclosure requirements would apply to the conservative-leaning Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, which sends mailers critical of Democratic candidates, critics said the bill's original language was silent on labor unions, which often back Democrats.

When the bill reached Baker's desk in early July, he returned it to the Legislature with an amendment specifying the disclosure requirement would apply to communications "made by an individual group, association, corporation, labor union or other entity," and replacing a reference to "group or association" with "group, association or labor union."

The House on Saturday and the Senate on Sunday accepted Baker's amendment.

Good government group Common Cause has urged swift passage of the bill so that its disclosure requirements can be in place before this fall's elections.

Republicans in both the House and Senate opposed votes on Sunday to add an emergency preamble to the bill, so that the requirements would take effect immediately after the governor's signature. Without such language, they would take effect 90 days after the signing.

In the Senate, the emergency preamble initially failed on a 6-4 vote, with a two thirds margin required for adoption. After Sen. Michael Brady, a Brockton Democrat, requested the vote be reconsidered, it passed on a 25-6 standing vote.

Acton Democrat Sen. Jamie Eldridge said the disclosure requirements would be critical for this year's elections, while Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester said listing only the top five donors would create a misleading impression of how an organization is funded. Tarr told his fellow senators that they were trading expedience for the concealment of a "vast" number of donors.

The House adopted its emergency preamble on a 122-34 party line vote. Rep. Jim Lyons, an Andover Republican, then asked for reconsideration. His motion failed on a 34-123 vote, also along party lines.

Lyons said an "unintended consequence" of the emergency preamble was that the new disclosure requirements would be imposed in the middle of a campaign season, potentially creating challenges for groups that had already begun political spending. He referenced the penalties contained in the bill, which calls for violators to be punished by "imprisonment in the house of correction for not more than 1 year or by a fine of not more than $10,000, or both."

Referring to the potential for the legislation to make "criminals out of people," Lyons said, "That's the last thing we want to do."

After the emergency preambles were added, the House and Senate sent the bill back to Baker.


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