Spending ruling adds twist to Mass. politics

By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / March 31, 2010

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Corporations may now spend unlimited sums to influence elections in Massachusetts, a result of a US Supreme Court ruling in January that struck down limits on corporate spending in federal elections on the constitutional grounds that it restricted free speech.

Massachusetts law has limited corporate influence on elections since 1907, but under a change issued last month by the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, corporations are free to spend funds expressly advocating the election or defeat of candidates through the use of so-called independent expenditures, which cannot be coordinated with candidates or their campaigns.

The state ban on corporate contributions to candidates and political parties is not affected, according to Jason Tait, spokesman for the state agency that oversees campaign spending.

Corporations are already permitted to make unlimited contributions in support of or opposition to ballot questions in the state.

The change could have an impact on this fall’s elections for governor and other state and county offices.

The state campaign office said the restriction on corporate spending was lifted to make state law conform with the Jan. 21 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The high court ruled in that case that “independent expenditures by corporations made to influence candidate elections cannot be limited, because doing so would not comply with the First Amendment,’’ the campaign finance agency said in a statement.

The change levels the playing field between corporations and labor unions, who in Massachusetts faced no such restriction and for years have provided heavy support for Democrats. In 2006, for instance, the last time Bay State voters elected a governor, two labor unions accounted for 94 percent of the $4 million in independent expenditures, according to figures compiled by the state’s campaign finance office.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association spent $2.5 million in support of Democrat Deval Patrick in the final election, and Service Employees International Union Local 1199 spent a total of $1.15 million in support of Patrick and other Democratic candidates. Independent expenditures by individuals and an organization not associated with labor totaled only $14,614 during that election cycle.

Corporations will be subject to the same reporting requirements as unions, individuals, and other groups who must file reports of independent expenditures with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, Tait said.

The law requires that independent expenditures must be reported to the state campaign finance office within seven business days of the expenditure or within 24 hours if the expenditure is made within 10 days of an election, he said.

The reports must identify the date, amount, and type of expenditure, and the name and address of the organization or individual making it.

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