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Massachusetts unions protest new limits proposed for political donations

Massachusetts unions protest new limits proposed for political donations

Labor unions and political organizers on Tuesday urged the state’s top finance regulator to reverse a proposal that would rein in how much money unions can donate to their preferred candidates, arguing it’s “unfair” and could tip the scales of influence.

But that line of reasoning, threaded through testimony to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, met immediate headwinds: Michael Sullivan, the office’s director, told critics that his job isn’t to “level the playing field” but to clarify the law, signaling the arguments will do little to shape the final regulations due later this spring.

The debate stems from a proposal the office released last month to slash the annual limit tied to labor donations. Currently, labor unions are allowed to give up to $15,000 annually to a single political candidate, but the draft regulations would set the limit at $1,000, and cap donations to political action committees at $500 and a political party’s committee at $5,000.

While it effectively brings unions under the same limits imposed on individuals, the proposal could alter the state’s political fund-raising landscape by eliminating a decades-old advantage labor organizations have enjoyed in state and local elections. The higher donation limit, set in the 1980s, also applies to nonprofits that aren’t corporate-funded.

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The draft regulations, as expected, drew heavy criticism from labor leaders. Richard MacKinnon Jr., president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, said that the rule change would “have a significant impact on our ability to be politically active on behalf of our members.”

Steven A. Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, charged that the change was “unfair” and an “overreach.”

“The proposed changes to this rule would significantly weaken one of the last remaining avenues for working people and community organizations to level the playing field,” he said.

But Sullivan pushed back, arguing that his role isn’t to referee fairness but execute the rules.

“Everyone talks about leveling the playing field. This is the part where I say: That’s not my job,” Sullivan said at the close of the hourlong hearing.

“People who are elected, they get to write the statute,” he added. “If it’s not clear, then it’s up to us to try to make it clear. The job of OCPF is not — and I emphasize this — is not to level the playing field.”

The office began reexamining the rules following a Nov. 7 request from the watchdog group Common Cause Massachusetts, and it initially drew a wave of comments from 15 individuals or organizations, including labor unions and business groups.

Derided as a loophole by critics, the $15,000 cap survived a challenge before the Supreme Judicial Court in September, when it upheld the longstanding ban on direct corporate gifts. But even then, the court implied — in a footnote — that the campaign finance office should review the regulation. Sullivan said the office intends to release a final version of the regulations by May 1.

Labor groups weren’t the only one pushing the finance office to scrap the draft regulations. Steven J. D’Amico, a former state representative, said the rule would limit the work of groups such Coalition for Social Justice that work on behalf of low-income constituents to support people for local and state office.

Those groups use the current limit “to breathe life into participatory democracy,” he said. “I think we need more balance, not less.”

MariaElena Letona, executive director of Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts, said it too uses the current rule to help bolster local campaigns.

“This is the way we invest in the training of nontraditional candidates,” she said.

Conversely, even one supporter of reducing what unions can donate challenged the finance office’s ability to set the new limit. Paul D. Craney, a spokesman for the conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, said making such a change shouldn’t be done through regulations.

“The role of the state agency is to enforce the laws as written, not to write new ones,” he said.

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, disagreed.

“Common Cause does not have any concern about your regulatory authority in this area,” she told Sullivan.

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.

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