Another blow for campaign reform

Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s latest deficit-mitigation plan would take $12 million from the Citizens’ Election Program, possibly leaving the system of publicly financing campaigns with insufficient funds for the 2010 elections, advocates said Tuesday.

Surprised legislators said Rell’s proposal to take money from the fund undermines efforts by an administration-led working group to formulate changes to bring the program in compliance with a court order.

Rell proposed the cut Monday, the same day that the small working group of legislators and administration officials held its first meeting.

“We were sitting in one room talking about how to save the program, while other people in the governor’s office were talking about how to raid the fund,” said Sen. Gayle S. Slossberg, D-Milford, a working-group member.

The administration said that the $12 million largely would be offset by money that the program can expect in the fiscal year that begins July 1, but elections officials say there is no guarantee the new money will arrive in time.

One problem with the governor’s latest mitigation plan, according to Beth Rotman of the State Elections Enforcement Commission, is that the fund previously was cut by $38.5 million, wiping out its safety margin.

The Citizens Election Program is financed by unclaimed property the state receives throughout the fiscal year. It now has $43 million and is projected to need between $37.6 million and $47.4 million.

If Rell takes the $12 million, the fund will drop to $31 million.

But Jeffrey Beckham, the spokesman for the administration’s budget office, said that the fund typically gets $18 million in new funding a year. Seven million dollars already has been claimed by the administration for other programs, meaning the fund can expect $11 million in the next fiscal year — or nearly $1 million a month.

Rotman, the director of the program, said the treasurer’s office warned her that unclaimed property, technically known as escheats, does not flow that evenly into state coffers.

“Their message was very clear. There is no predictability,” Rotman said.

Slossberg said that candidates could qualify for public financing, but find that the state has no money to pay them.

Campaign finance reforms passed in 2005 banned contributions from lobbyists, state contractors and their spouses and created a voluntary system of publicly financing campaigns.

Three-quarters of legislative candidates participated in 2008. This is the first year that candidates for statewide office can use the program.

A federal judge last summer declared the program unconstitutional, saying that it discriminated against minor-party candidates. His order was stayed pending a review by an appellate court, which is expected soon.

An adverse ruling by the appellate court could kill the program for 2010, unless the legislature passes legislation that places minor and major parties on equal footing.

Rep. Christopher L. Caruso, D-Bridgeport, one of the backers of the 2005 legislation, questioned the commitment Tuesday of the Senate leadership to pass the necessary legislative fix.

Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, has said the leadership is committed to saving the program.