Legislators ready to repair public campaign finance law

Months after the state’s public campaign finance system was struck down by the U.S. district court, the legislature’s election committee shed some light on what their fix will include.

Rep. James F. Spallone, co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections committee, said Monday the bill to be introduced when the legislature convenes Wednesday will likely include scaling back the amount of public money candidates receive to run their campaigns and an easier route to participation by minor-party candidates.

“The bill will reflect ideas brought forth in conjunction with the court’s decision,” the Essex Democrat said about the court’s decision that minor-party candidates have too high a burden to qualify for public financing. “… The silver lining is that we already developed a proposal last year.”

Spallone said the exact details of the bill will likely mirror last year’s proposed changes to the law with a few adjustments to the state’s Citizens’ Election Program. That bill was passed by the Government Administration and Elections Committee but the House and Senate never voted on the bill.

That bill proposed eliminating the difference in grants for major party legislative candidates, among other changes.

A public hearing on the proposed bill is set for Feb. 10.

Senate Democrats Spokesman Derek Slap said too many people in leadership positions – including President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams, Jr.; Speaker of the House Christopher G. Donovan and Gov. M. Jodi Rell – support the campaign finance system to not fix it.

“That says a lot about the support for it and making sure it doesn’t fall apart,” he said, predicting Senate Democrats will consider the committee’s recommendations “very soon. Probably in the next few weeks, if not sooner.”

The state is appealing U.S. District Court Judge Stefan R. Underhill’s ruling to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York,  and Spallone said it’s critical the state has a plan because “when the court rules the clock starts ticking on the law. So, it’s really important to be ready to act fast.”

If the state’s appeal is rejected, the legislature has seven days to fix the violations. If the legislature does not act fast enough, the whole campaign finance system would be thrown out, forcing candidates who have been counting on public financing to scramble for contributions.

About 75 percent of legislative candidates used public financing in 2008. This is the first year the money would have been available in statewide races.

Whether the legislature will move forward with changing the law before the appeal court renders its decision is still anyone’s guess, Spallone said.

“Do we pass a bill so that we try to moot the appeal and just change the law? … Do we have a new law that would replace the existing law? Or, do we have the bill in our back pocket waiting for the ruling? That’s a decision we will have to make as we go forward,” Spallone said.

Spallone and Rell favor reducing the amount of public money candidates receive for their campaigns, although Spallone would not say what the proposed new levels are before the bill is introduced.

“The key is to make it so it’s fiscally responsible but not in a way that would deter candidates. We will try and reflect what people need to run a good campaign not necessarily what they want or think they want to run a good campaign. We will make it attractive to candidates and I think those numbers can be lower,” he said.

Rell announced today how much she would like to see public funding scaled back for campaigns. Candidates for governor she would like to see receive $2.5 million versus the current $3 million for the general election, state senate would decline from $85,000 to $70,000, statewide offices from $750,000 to $400,000 and state representative $20,000 versus the current $25,000.

This change “will encourage citizen participation in the political process while limiting the role of private money in elections,” Rell said.

Sen. Michael A. McLachlan, R-Danbury, the ranking member of the elections committee, said he supports reduction of grants for candidates.

“Hopefully this bill will consider a reduction of grants in light of the state’s fiscal issues,” he said. “I am somewhat disappointed we didn’t deal with this last year.”

Spallone said he is not sure if the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision last week upending campaign finance laws and permitting unlimited corporate spending on political speech will affect his provisions to the state’s campaign finance laws.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said in January the Supreme Court’s decision has no affect on current Citizens’ Election Program laws.

Spallone said he is confident the legislature will move on the proposal because so many candidates are dependant on the outcome.

“We have people trying to run campaigns and they have to have confidence that they can rely on this innovative system going forward,” he said.