Time running short for public financing

To understand the political challenges involved in trying to save the Citizens’ Election Program, imagine the state’s embattled system of publicly financing campaigns as a house on fire.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell is desperately trying to dial 911. The Senate’s Democratic majority isn’t sure the fire is that bad. And some leading Republicans hope it all burns to the ground.

Can this program, which was negotiated by the Republican governor and Democratic legislature after a corruption scandal forced the resignation of Gov. John G. Rowland, be saved?

Rell and Democratic and Republican legislative leaders agreed Monday to create a special committee to devise a response to a court’s finding six months ago that the program is unconstitutional.

“The governor felt, as a lot of us did, that we weren’t communicating,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk. “What can we do to expedite this?”

Senate Democrats said they want to wait to see if the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit affirms or overrules a judge’s finding that the program is unconstitutional.

“There are a number of questions on our mind as to what the outcome of the appeal will be,” said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn. “Maybe the entire system will be intact.”

But the Senate’s posture on timing is at odds with proponents who testified Monday at an all-day public hearing that the Citizens’ Election Program is withering without decisive legislative action.

“We are starting to see candidates jump ship, because they don’t believe the General Assembly will pass a fix to guarantee the CEP’s viability,” said Karen Hobert Flynn of Common Cause.

Williams said he is committed to saving the program, but his caucus needs time.

“I would hope we have something to vote on some time in March,” he said. “We may very well have a 2nd Circuit opinion in March.”

Cafero, whose caucus voted against the public-financing bill in 2005, said he agreed to participate in talks to save the program because legislators are two months away from seeking nominations.

“It would be irresponsible if I didn’t participate in the discussion,” Cafero said. “People need to know what the rules are.”

U.S. District Court Judge Stefan R. Underhill declared elements of the program unconstitutional in August, finding it was overly generous to major parties and discriminated against minor parties.

The state’s appeal was heard last month.

On Monday, the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee held a hearing on two legislative fixes, one offered by Rell and another by committee Democrats.

Hobert Flynn said either version should keep the program alive and give candidates confidence that they can rely on the voluntary public financing system in 2010.

In written testimony, Rell said that uncertainty could kill the program as easily as adverse court decision.  Candidates need to know the rules of the road, she said.

Qualifying candidates for governor are expecting to receive public grants of $1.25 million in May for a primary and $3 million in August for the general campaign. Some of those candidates have been planning their campaigns for a year.

Legislative candidates are making their plans now.

“These candidates should not have to wait for an appeals court decision, which we may or may not win, and have the rules change on them mid-campaign,” Rell said.

If the appeals court affirms Underhill, the legislature would have just seven days to respond.

The legislature adopted The Citizens’ Election Program in 2005, creating a voluntary system of publicly financing campaigns.  It also banned contributions from lobbyists, state contractors and their spouses.

The program was available to legislators in 2008, when 75 percent of the candidates participated. This is the first year when candidates for governor and other statewide constitutional offices are eligible.

Underhill upheld the ban on lobbyists and contractors, but he said the program was unfair to minor parties, because it imposed additional burdens beyond qualifying for the ballot. He also struck down a section that provided candidates who face high-spending opponents with supplemental grants.

Rell’s bill would treat minor-party candidates who qualify for the ballot the same as major-party candidates.

To get on the ballot, a minor-party candidate for governor has to obtain signatures equal to 1 percent of vote in the last election.

But they are eligible for public financing only if their party’s candidate for the office received a certain percentage of the vote in the previous election for that office or they collect an equivalent number of petition signatures.

They can get a one-third grant for hitting a threshold of 10 percent of the previous vote, two-thirds for 15 percent and a full grant for 20 percent.

Under the Democratic bill, those thresholds would be reduced to 3, 4 and 5 percent. Rell would eliminate them.

Both bills would reduce the grants for every office but governor, a response to Underhill’s conclusion that the present law provides “a windfall” for legislative candidates.

At the hearing Monday, the committee heard from various players in the legal challenge to the Citizens’ Election Program.

Common Cause, an intervenor on behalf of the state, urged quick action to save the program.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which supported the lawsuit, offered testimony in favor of the legislation.

Republican State Chairman Chris Healy, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the plaintiffs, urged the committee to kill program that Rell considers a key part of her legacy.

He said the state should not be spending public funds on campaigns, especially since the state is facing a $500 million shortfall this year and a $3 billion gap next year.

He called it “political welfare.”

Jeffrey Wright, a mayor of Newington and Republican candidate for governor, testified in support of the program. Mary Glassman, a Democratic candidate, filed written testimony in support.

Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia, testified that the legislature should suspend the program for two years until the state’s finances improve. Too many vital state programs are facing cuts for the state to spending more than $40 million on campaigns.

Sen. Gayle S. Slossberg, D-Milford, co-chairwoman of the committee, said she is among those who believe that delay could doom a program that she says limited the influence of special interests in legislative elections in 2008.

“We’re going to have a lot of people opt out, and then at that point the viability of the program is in question,” Slossberg said. “It’s like losing blood. The lifeblood of this program is the participants.”