Two local state representatives filed a bill to counter the influence of what they are calling “dark money” in town meetings.
State Sen. Julian Cyr (D-Truro) and State Rep. Dylan Fernandes (D-Falmouth) announced in a press release they filed legislation to “establish transparency and accountability” for any money spent to influence voters at town meetings.
The bill, called “An Act relative to dark money in local government” (S.2804/H.4628) would close a “longstanding loophole” in Massachusetts’ campaign and political finance law that allows “unfettered political influence” on town meeting warrant articles.
“Political spending on issues before town meetings should be required to follow the same rules of the road as candidates, ballot questions, and other political campaigns,” Cyr said in the release. “It’s bewildering and distressing that people with deep pockets and financial interests think they can buy their way into our local governance. We’re done with monied interests trying to sway town politics on the Cape and Islands; voters deserve to know who is behind campaigns seeking to influence local policies that will impact those of us who live here year-round.”
Massachusetts campaign finance law requires disclosure agreements for any group that receives financial contributions to oppose or promote a ballot question or influence an election. Candidates for state and local public offices must also follow strict requirements, including contribution limits and disclosure requirements. However, these disclosure and transparency requirements do not currently apply to groups seeking to influence issues addressed at town meetings, and do not appear before voters on the ballots, such as warrant articles.
“Local policy decisions should be made by town residents, but a glaring loophole in the law allows for unfettered and unlimited spending by large outside groups and corporations to influence small town decisions,” Fernandes said in the release. “This legislation dams the flow of pervasive dark money in town meetings that too often drowns out the voices of local residents.”
The release states that Cape and Islands towns have seen an “unprecedented level of financial and political expenditures” on matters before town meetings. Additionally, there has been a “worrisome increase” of spending and engagement by non-voters in recent years.
According to the lawmakers, off-Island investors tried to influence short-term rental and housing measures during a recent Nantucket town meeting. In Provincetown this past spring, an anonymous group called Provincetown Citizens for Housing Solutions advocated against several short-term rental articles with mailers and text messages. Last week, mail was sent to Truro voters from a group named Take Back Truro, which campaigned against public works and housing initiatives.
Both open and representative town meetings are currently excluded from the state’s campaign finance law, and there is no oversight over what a group of people advocates for or against before a town meeting, according to the lawmakers.