Amid ‘slush fund’ criticism, nearly all legislative caucuses will forgo outside donations
All but one of the nearly two dozen caucuses formed by state lawmakers say they will not solicit outside contributions, weeks after a new internal rule allowing legislative groups to raise private funds stirred controversy on Beacon Hill.
Leaders of more than 20 caucuses — groups of legislators who advocate for a shared agenda — disclosed the decision to forgo private donations in newly filed disclosures required under a provision the House of Representatives passed earlier this year.
The rule, which requires all caucuses to register with the House Committee on Rules, also bars lobbyists from donating and says caucuses must receive approval from House counsel before taking any gift of more than $50. But the potential of taking donations outside of campaign finance disclosure laws drew intense heat, including criticisms it could create a legislative “slush fund.” Lawmakers ultimately dropped plans last month to create a central account where caucuses could house their contributions.
Caucuses, however, could still solicit donations if they chose to, and one already has.
The Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus currently has more than $11,000 in its account, most of it from a “recent” $10,000 donation from Jarrett Barrios, the chief executive of the American Red Cross Los Angeles and a former caucus member when he was Cambridge state senator, according to Representative Carlos Gonzalez, the caucus’ current chair.
The rest of the funds come from the caucus members’ annual $200 dues. The group generally uses the money to promote and fund events in the legislators’ districts or at the State House, though Gonzalez indicated that Barrios’s donation marks a new high point.
“Our account has generally never exceeded $2,000,” Gonzalez said.
That the Black and Latino Caucus voluntarily identified a donor is encouraging, but the process still should have a formal mechanism for disclosure, said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.
“That should be part of the package — having strict disclosure of the source of the funds and the amount so it’s all above board and the public can weigh in if there are any other issues,” Wilmot said. “I think the good news is that the vast majority of caucuses are not going along with raising money from outside groups.”
Another group, the Massachusetts Caucus of Women Legislators, also answered “yes” on its disclosure to whether it handles funds or accepts gifts, denoting that it takes member dues. Representative Liz Malia of Jamaica Plain, the caucus’s House chair, said that the group has not accepted any outside donations, and reiterated that it’s funded by biennial member contributions. She added in an e-mail Wednesday that the caucus does not intend to solicit private contributions going forward.
Legislators form caucuses to advocate around shared interests, issues, or even geography, meaning their scope and intent can vary widely throughout the State House.
Groups that registered this legislative session range from the House Progressive Caucus, which counts 58 members, and the Medicare for All Caucus, an 18-member group that plans to “study, discuss and strategize” how universal health care can be implemented in the state, to the MetroWest Caucus, made up of lawmakers from communities between Boston and Worcester.
Still others haven’t formally registered. Those include the Law Enforcement Caucus, a small group formed by Senator Vinny deMacedo of Plymouth that focuses on law enforcement interests, and the Tech Hub Caucus.
Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, a Gloucester Democrat and the tech caucus’s House chair, said the group intends to register this week but that it does not plan to solicit outside donations.
“Our mission is mostly educational and providing an opportunity for folks in the tech community to interface with legislators. We can do that without funding,” Ferrante said.
Not to be confused with the Tech Hub Caucus is the Massachusetts Biotech Caucus, which is coordinated by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, a powerful trade group, and chaired by Representative Joseph Wagner of Chicopee, the House’s assistant majority leader, according to Zach Stanley, the council’s vice president of public affairs.
Stanley said MassBio has no plans to make any financial contributions to the caucus, which is not formally registered with the House.