Committee rewrites public campaign financing rules

A legislative committee Wednesday approved bills that would salvage the state’s endangered public financing system for campaigns with new rules, smaller grants and a greater reliance on private dollars.

If approved by the full legislature, the bills also would preserve a ban on contributions by lobbyists and state contractors.

Without the legislation, a court ruling is likely to force the public financing program to go out of existence this spring, tilting the race for each party’s gubernatorial nominations to wealthy candidates who can self-finance their campaigns.

“We are pleased this is moving along,” said Cheri Quickmire, the executive director of Common Cause, which has been advocating a rewrite of the Citizens’ Election Program since an adverse court ruling last summer.

The Government Administration and Elections Committee approved two bills, one covering statewide races and another for legislative contests. One was sent to the Senate floor, the other to the House.

Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, and Rep. James F. Spallone, D-Essex, co-chairmen of the committee, said they will urge their leadership to call for quick action by each chamber. Both bills, however, likely will first face a review by the Appropriations Committee.

The Citizens’ Election Program is voluntary system under which qualifying candidates who abide by spending limits are entitled to public financing for their campaigns. It was created in 2005 after a corruption scandal forced the resignation of Gov. John G. Rowland.

It requires participating candidates to raise qualifying amounts, relying on contributions of no more $100. A gubernatorial candidate needs to raise $250,000 to receive a primary grant of $1.25 million and $3 million for the general election.

To protect participating candidates against attack ads by independent groups or a non-participating, high-spending opponent, the law has “trigger” provisions that would automatically provide supplemental grants.

U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill struck down the Citizens’ Election Program as unconstitutional in August, finding it favored major parties over minor parties. He also invalidated the trigger provisions that provided supplemental grants.

The revised legislation would eliminate the supplemental grant for a participating candidate who faces negative ads by an independent group and rewrite the rules for someone opposed by a high-spending, privately funded candidate.

No longer would a participating candidate automatically get a supplemental grant just because an opponent exceeded the voluntary spending cap.  Instead a participating candidate would be allowed to raise further private funds, matched by public grants.

For every $1 in private funds, the state would match with $3 in supplemental public funds, up to a maximum of $1.25 million for a primary and $3 million for a general election.

The upshot of the changes is that a participating gubernatorial candidate would be able to receive a maximum of $6 million in public funds for a general election, as compared to $9 million under the existing law.

Gubernatorial candidates could accept maximum contributions of $500, instead of the present $100, to qualify for both the initial public grant and a supplemental grant.

The maximum allowable contributions for non-participating gubernatorial candidates would remain at $3,500.

The existing system allows a gubernatorial candidate to qualify for as much as $9 million in public funds for a general election, if the opposition triggered two maximum supplemental grants.

The new rules would limit candidates to one supplemental grant, meaning that the most a gubernatorial candidate could receive for the general election would be $6 million.

The barriers to minor-party candidates also would be removed.

House Majority Leader Denise W. Merrill, D-Mansfield, praised the committee action.

“Our state has been a national leader in ensuring the integrity of elections and the 2005 clean elections law was a landmark moment for Connecticut,” Merrill said. “This legislation helps ensure that elected officials are held accountable to the people of Connecticut and not special interests.”