Plan to fix campaign finance system lowers the bar for minor parties

Legislators are proposing a plan to rescue the state’s taxpayer-funded campaign finance program by significantly lowering the bar for participation by minor-party candidates.

Sen. Gayle S. Slossberg (D-Milford), co-chairman of the committee responsible for election laws, said the proposal would save the Citizens’ Election Program so candidates can rely on money for their already-launched campaigns.

“I’ve been saying we need to fix it immediately,” she said. “The longer it takes to decide, the harder it is for [candidates] to decide to participate and the worse it is for democracy.”

About 75 percent of legislative candidates used public financing in 2008; this is the first year the money could be available for statewide races.

U.S. District Judge Stefan R. Underhill struck down the state’s public financing system in August, ruling it discriminates against minor-party and petitioning candidates by establishing too high a barrier to qualify for funding. The state appealed his decision to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which has heard arguments but has not yet ruled.

Under the law as originally passed, a minor party had to have received 10 percent of the total vote cast in the previous election for the office being sought to qualify for a one-third grant, and 20 percent to qualify for a full grant. Petitioning candidates needed signatures equal to 10 percent of the votes cast for a one-third grant and 20 percent for a full grant.

Slossberg said the bill proposed by the Government Administration and Elections Committee would reduce the threshold to 3 percent for a one-third grant and 5 percent for a full grant.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who urged the legislature to fix the program during her State of the State speech last week, has proposed eliminating the threshold completely. Slossberg says she also favors eliminating the threshold but doesn’t believe it is a realistic goal.

“There are so many legislators who believe it is important to protect the public dollar and to not be giving grants of public money for hopeless candidates,” she said.

Another major change in the Government Administration and Elections Committee’s proposals is a reduction in the size of the grants for most offices. The grant for the governor’s race remains unchanged at $1.25 million for a party primary and $3 million for the general election, but the committee is recommending that the grants for other statewide offices be cut by a third, to $250,000 for the primary and $500,000 for the general election.

Rell wants to reduce the grant sizes for all offices. The grant for the governor’s race would be cut up to 20 percent, to $1 million for the primary and $2.5 million for the general election. For other statewide offices, cutting the grants almost in half, to $200,000 for the primary and $400,000 for the general election.

George Jepsen, the former Senate majority leader who is exploring a run for attorney general, said this shift could deter him from using public financing, saying “It’s not enough money.”

Jepsen is facing a possible primary against Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, who has opted out of public financing despite being an early supporter of it. Bysiewicz had almost $240,000 in cash on hand at the end of the year, according to disclosure reports, with $126,000 of that raised in December alone.

State Rep. Cameron C. Staples (D-New Haven), another prospective candidate for attorney general, has pledged to use public financing for his campaign.

Candidates may not approve of the cutbacks, but the committee had no choice but to make the recommendation, Slossberg said, because of the federal court decision that the grant amount creates a “windfall” giving major-party candidates an unfair advantage. The state’s grim budget outlook also played a role.

“People will always spend more money if you give it to them. Certainly we want to make sure there is enough money so we don’t deter anyone, but we cannot afford to be giving windfall grants to people.”

Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause of Connecticut, said the uncertainty of the program is hindering the program’s ultimate goal: to encourage competition.

“We are already seeing people jump ship because they are not sure the program will be there,” she said.

Quickmire said it is not too late for the legislature to act, but time is starting to run short with nominating conventions just three months away.

“We would like them to fix the law now,” she said.

Another problem that threatens the program, Quickmire told the legislature’s Appropriations Committee Monday, is ongoing budget cuts.

Over the past 14 months, the Citizens’ Election Program has been cut by $39 million, bringing the program’s balance to $43 million. The state Elections Enforcement Commission estimates the program needs up to $48 million for the 2010 election cycle, but Common Cause estimates the election could cost more than $52 million.

“Any additional cuts make it challenging to have the funds we need to run a robust program in 2010,” she testified.

Slossberg said her committee’s proposal makes the tough decisions necessary to preserve the programs financial stability.

“I don’t think there is any issue about whether the money will be there or not,” she said. “But the faster we can do this the better.”

If the legislature fails to act, and the appeals court upholds the decision that the Citizens’ Election Program as unconstitutional, the disappearance of public financing would provide a major advantage for two independently wealthy politicians in the governor’s race: Democrat Ned Lamont and Republican Tom Foley.

Foley has said he will privately finance his campaign. Lamont has not ruled out using public financing, but is widely expected to use his own money for the run as he did in his 2006 U.S. Senate campaign against Joseph Lieberman.

Exploratory or declared candidates for governor who intend to use public financing include Democrats James A. Amann, Juan Figueroa, Mary Glassman, Dan Malloy, Rudy Marconi and at least three Republicans, Lt. Gov. Michael C. Fedele, Lawrence DeNardis and Mark Boughton. Republican Tom Marsh is considering a run without public financing.