Poll says residents want public financing law fixed

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The Senate majority leader is optimistic about the legislature revising the law, which was found unconstitutional last summer. The Senate minority leader is betting against it.

“I think we are coming close to the point where it is too late,” said Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield.

Common Cause bolstered its efforts to save the public financing of campaigns in Connecticut with a poll Wednesday that shows support for the reforms passed in 2005 after the resignation of Gov. John G. Rowland.

The group is trying to nudge legislators to cure legal defects in the law that could kill the Citizens’ Election Program just as candidates for statewide office otherwise would be receiving their first grants.

“Nearly 8 in 10 respondents indicated their support for public financing of elections. This is a message that the governor and legislators can’t ignore,” said Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause Connecticut.

A telephone survey by Zogby International found that 79 percent of residents favor the program and 58 percent support Gov. M. Jodi Rell and legislators making changes necessary to conform to the court ruling against it.

U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill in August ruled that the program is unconstitutional, saying it favors Democrats and Republicans at the expense of minor party candidates. The state’s appeal of his decision is pending.

Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said that he believes legislators are close to finding a way to level the field for how candidates for major and minor parties would qualify for public funds.

More problematic, he said, is trying to save provisions that would provide supplemental funds to candidates who are the target of negative ads by independent groups or who face high-spending, privately financed opponents.

“That’s a thorny subject, and there’s been no consensus,” he said.

Under the present law, qualifying candidates for governor are eligible for $1.25 million for a primary and $3 million for the general election. The state could double those grants to help offset higher spending by a privately financed candidate.

In an interview, Rell said the legislature needs to quickly address Underhill’s objections. She asked lawmakers to amend the program in November, but legislators could not reach a consensus then, either.

“The biggest problem for me right now is the uncertainly for candidates. They don t know which way to go,” she said. “They are in a state of limbo.”

Despite his pessimism, McKinney said he hopes the legislature can resolve that uncertainty.

“I absolutely believe we must do something,” he said, adding it would be unfair to candidates to simply hope the state wins on appeal.

A complicating factor is the U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down federal restrictions on corporately financed attack ads, calling it an abrogation of free speech.

Underhill upheld a provision of the Connecticut law that bans lobbyists and state contractors from making or soliciting campaign contributions. The lobbyists are appealing.

Their lawyer, R. Bartley Halloran, said he believes the Supreme Court decision means that the state must demonstrate a compelling reason to ban the solicitations, which are a form of political speech. But he acknowledged that the state might be able to restrict, though not totally ban lobbyist and contractor contributions.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has said that the Supreme Court case, Citizens United, should not influence the Connecticut appeal, but the appeals court has asked both sides to submit briefs exploring the relevance of the decision.

Karen Hobert Flynn of Common Cause said that Citizens United has had one positive effect for reformers: Several states are taking a look at public financing as a way to counter what they expect will be a deluge of independent campaign spending by corporations and unions.

“In Connecticut, we did it,” she said. “Now, we need to fix it and preserve it for the future.”

Legislators have said they hope to hold public hearings on possible changes to the law soon after the General Assembly begins its 2010 session on Feb 3.

Dannel P. Malloy, one of the Democrats exploring a run for governor, quickly seized on the poll as a reason for the rest of the field to to participate in public financing.

One of Malloy’s better-known rivals for the nomination, Ned Lamont, who spent $17 million of his money on a U.S. Senate race in 2006, has refused to commit. Tom Foley, a wealthy businessman seeking the Republican nomination, has said he will not seek public funds.

“This poll should serve as proof of just how strongly Connecticut voters feel about campaign finance reform, and as a warning for those candidates who think they can brush aside the Citizens’ Election Program in order to try and buy a nomination,” Malloy said.

It is unclear how persuasive legislators will find the poll, which found that 50 percent of those surveyed did not know enough about the Citizens’ Election Program to initially have an opinion.

Of the rest, 45 percent approved and 5 percent disapproved.

But 79 percent of respondents expressed support after the pollster read this definition:

“Under the Citizens’ Election program, candidates collect a set amount of small contributions of 
$100 or less to qualify for a limited amount of public funds. Once qualified, they must adhere to 
strict campaign spending limits and can no longer accept campaign contributions. Knowing this, 
do you strongly favor, somewhat favor, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose the Citizens’ Election 

The 2005 law bans contributions from lobbyists, state contractors and their spouses. It creates a voluntary system of public financing campaigns in which candidates qualify for funds by raising threshold amounts, relying on contributions of no more than $100. No funds are payable until a candidate qualifies for the ballot in a primary or general election.

In the case of candidates for governor, they must raise $250,000 to qualify for a primary grant of $1.25 million and a general-election grant of $3 million. More than 70 percent of legislative candidates used public financing in 2008. This would be the first election it was available to candidates for governor and other statewide constitutional offices.

The poll was based on a survey of 503 people. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.