One positive outcome in last fall’s elections was the success of people new to the process. Sure, voters in Massachusetts mostly sent incumbents back to the Statehouse, but the likes of Reps. Christina Minicucci, from North Andover, and Tram Nguyen, from Andover, show there can be new voices and ideas on Beacon Hill. Even in cases where incumbents kept their jobs, several around here faced serious challenges from well-organized, thoughtful newcomers.
We’ll hold tight to that positive feeling just a little longer since the other day a report landed in our inbox that might cause cynicism about the process. It was yet another reminder of just how expensive our politics have become.
The report from the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance was not about individual candidates but ballot committees, the vaguely named groups that support or oppose referendums. Daresay most of us have put last fall’s ballot out of our brains at this point, but that question about setting limits for nurse staffing drew gobs of cash for commercials, emails, flyers, phone calls and the other apparatus of campaigns to sway public opinion.
The Committee to Ensure Safe Patient Care, which was in favor of nurse staffing limits in hospitals, collected and spent more than $12 million, according to the campaign finance office, with $5 of every $6 coming from the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
To which the hospital industry said, “Hold our stethoscope.” It raised $24.8 million and spent nearly all of it. That was the most ever spent by a single ballot question committee, according to the finance office. Most of the funding for the Coalition to Protect Patient Safety, opposing the staffing question, came from the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association.
Not to be overly reductive, but the hospital group and its committee spent $13.31 for every vote cast against the question, according to the political finance office. The nurses spent $15.29 for every “yes” vote.
Until last fall’s race, the high water mark for a ballot committee in Massachusetts had been set by Great Schools Massachusetts, which paid $21.6 million in 2016 to support efforts to make way for a dozen more charter schools. That was about $17.36 per “yes” vote. Of course, that particular question failed, with opposition driven by the group Save Our Public Schools, which spent $15.2 million, or about $7.50 per vote.
In all, seven ballot committees spent money last fall to influence our collective opinion. They put out a combined $42.6 million, according to the campaign finance office.
The other questions dealt with overturning the state’s current gender identity law, which voters kept in place, and a question about creating a commission to study campaign spending, which voters approved. Supporters of the latter spent about $214,000, or 11 cents per vote.
Putting this into a broader perspective, only the 2016 ballot questions, with the charter school issue, saw more money spent ($57.5 million by 15 different committees).
Two years before that, ballot questions including those about casino gambling and bottle deposits ginned up just over $30 million in political expense.
Until then, ballot committees hadn’t put in more than $16 million combined for any election, according to the Campaign and Political Finance report, which covers 16 election cycles, going back to 1988.
We’re not kidding ourselves. Labor unions, campaign committees and other special interests have always poured money into ballot referendums. The novelty of the latest report is that there’s more and more of it, and these committees spend more for every vote they influence. That, if anything, underscores the need to ensure as much transparency as possible so that all voters can know who is trying to sway their decisions.
But, at the risk of sounding too much like Jimmy Stewart’s character Jefferson Smith, we’ll still take comfort in knowing that a local candidate need not raise six figures (Minicucci collected $92,300 for her election, according to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance) to win a seat at the Statehouse.