by Jeff Klein
originally published in the Dorchester Reporter
Most of us understand that money in our political system has a corrosive effect on democracy. That’s why Massachusetts has strong conflict-of-interest laws prohibiting any substantial gifts to lawmakers from lobbyists or organizations that advocate for legislation at the State House and city halls.
Supreme Court decisions may have weakened attempts to limit the flood of corporate and special interest money into federal elections, but there is still a lot we can do at the state level to curtail the influence of money on our elections and legislative process.
We can begin by closing a loophole that allows lobbyists to underwrite travel by public officials. New legislation filed at the State House, H. 3120, addresses this issue.
The background to the travel loophole is as follows: While state ethics rules forbid public officials from accepting gifts worth more than $50, lobbyists are allowed to underwrite travel worth up to many thousands of dollars. The recipients of these gifts have only to claim that the travel has a “legitimate public purpose” to promote the interests of the Commonwealth. No explanation or supporting documentation is required.
Much of the travel under this exception is benign. But travel subsidized by lobbyists or organizations with legislative agendas at the State House is another matter.
For example, legislators have attended conferences on state gambling policy with travel funded by gaming interests; they have traveled to meetings on Internet regulation on the tab of Google and Facebook; they have gone to meetings on regulating cable TV with funding by cable operators. Others have taken advantage of costly foreign travel funded by organizations with a clear legislative agenda.
People who pay up to thousands of dollars to a public official for travel should not be allowed to lobby that official for their vote or their support. This is a clear conflict of interest. As The Boston Globe commented in an editorial last month about Governor Healey’s corporate-funded travel: “Business executives could be trying to use the trip to buy influence in the state government.”
H.3120 would close the travel loophole to our ethics rules when the travel is paid for by lobbying organizations. Legitimate travel for educational or cultural purposes paid for by organizations which are not registered as lobbyists would not be affected.
Also under this bill, the reporting of any outside-funded travel by elected officials would be much more publicly accessible, so that voters themselves can judge how much sponsored trips are in the public interest and whether there is any conflict of interest at work.
Closing the travel loophole will help restore public confidence that legislators are not unduly influenced by lobbyist money in voting on legislation. It will also bring the Ethics Commission regulations in line with the Conflict of Interest Law, which authorizes the Commission to establish exclusions but only for “situations that do not present a genuine risk of conflict or the appearance of a conflict of interest.”
This is a common-sense reform toward the good and more transparent government that citizens of the Commonwealth deserve. H. 3120 is now before the State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee at the State House. We can be grateful that Dorchester’s Sen. Nick Collins, co-chair of the committee, has expressed support for this measure and agreed to co-sponsor it.
Jeff Klein is a retired local union president and member of Dorchester’s Ward 13 Democratic Committee.