In a powerful show of force by Speaker Thomas M. Finneran's leadership team, the House voted yesterday to cut off appropriations for the Clean Elections Law, a move that could force the collapse of the state's campaign finance system.
The budget amendment passed, 96 to 59, after more than five hours of occasionally angry debate on the House floor. It calls for voluntary taxpayer donations instead of budget funding for Clean Elections.
Supporters called the action an assault on democracy and an insult to voters who backed the measure by a 2-to-1 ratio in 1998.
''It's an incredible affront to the citizens of the Commonwealth,'' said Representative Douglas W. Petersen, a Marblehead Democrat. ''This is close to the death knell. The mourners are marching in the street.''
Finneran did not appear in the House chamber during the lengthy debate, and voted from his office rather than during the roll call. He would not speak to reporters after the vote.
The budget amendment pushed by his lieutenants also limits the amount of money available to Clean Elections candidates.
The vote could send the public campaign-financing system into turmoil before a single candidate runs with state money. Advocates doubt taxpayer donations would ever provide enough money to fully fund the system.
The law was enacted to provide public funds to candidates, from legislators to gubernatorial hopefuls, who agree to strict spending and fund-raising limits.
The debate now moves to the Senate, where leaders have said they will support full funding for the law. But the House and Senate would then go to a conference committee to work out their differences on the measure, and it is unclear whether the appropriation would survive.
And although Acting Governor Jane M. Swift supports Clean Elections and has promised to veto any changes, only the Legislature can appropriate money. That means Swift could be left powerless to undo the changes passed yesterday if they make it through the conference committee.
The amendment's chief sponsor, Joseph F. Wagner, chairman of the House Election Laws Committee, argued that the proposal solves major problems with the system by limiting its cost and establishing a funding mechanism.
The proposal would make available to candidates the $22.4 million that had been put aside for Clean Elections in previous years. Then, rather than appropriate the rest of the needed funds out of the budget, it would depend on taxpayers' opting to increase their tax burdens by up to $100 each. (Taxpayers would also retain the option of earmarking $1 each for the Clean Elections Fund - checkoffs that don't affect taxes owed but that only generate a few hundred thousand dollars per year.)
If the proposal becomes law, no more than $32 million can be spent on the 2002 election cycle. The law's advocates had sought $10 million appropriations for this year and next.
''We allow voters as taxpayers to determine whether or not they wish to fund campaigns here in Massachusetts,'' said Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat. ''Nothing in the amendment proposes that we change Chapter 55A,'' he said, referring to the Clean Elections Law.
Clean Elections advocates argued vehemently on the House floor that the proposal would strip the law of its meaning. A cap, they said, could scare away potential candidates and create an administrative nightmare if the funds run out. It could mean that there won't be money left for the very people the law was designed to attract - legislative challengers.
More significant, Clean Elections backers said, is that the system would almost certainly be starved for cash. No one will opt to pay more taxes voluntarily, said Representative Daniel E. Bosley, a North Adams Democrat. Advocates doubt $10 million could be raised through voluntary donations. That would require 100,000 taxpayers to donate $100 each.
''This amendment is here to kill Clean Elections,'' Bosley said.
But Representative Cory Atkins, a Concord Democrat, said the people will be able to reassert their support for Clean Elections by providing the money the system needs to run through donations. ''We are leaving this choice with the voters,'' said Atkins, the vice chairwoman of the House Election Laws Committee.
The vote caps months of speculation and behind-the-scenes maneuvering over the Clean Elections Law. Many legislators have voiced reasoned opposition to taxpayer-financed campaigns, while others despise the law simply because it could draw new challengers to Beacon Hill politics.
Floor debate followed along those lines yesterday, with critics bringing up a host of perceived weaknesses in the Clean Elections Law. Several representatives said the voters did not understand the law when they approved it. Others blamed media bias in distorting the issues at stake.
Swift, however, blasted the House for subverting the will of the voters by replacing budget funding with the taxpayer-donation proposal.
''They should fund Clean Elections, they should fund it out of the general fund, and they shouldn't make substantive changes to the bill,'' she said. ''The voters spoke fairly clearly about what they wanted in the Clean Elections bill, and the Legislature should follow through on that.''
Advocates say they will fight on in the Senate, and still hold out hope that a system resembling the one voters approved in 1998 will go into effect. But they acknowledged that yesterday was their biggest setback to date.
''Clean Elections walks out of this debate seriously neutered,'' said Representative Jay R. Kaufman, a Lexington Democrat. ''I'm much more disappointed than I am surprised. Finally they found a way to scuttle it.''
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company