Bill buys time for campaign finance fix

Despite calls for an immediate resolution of problems that threaten the state’s public campaign finance program, the House of Representatives Tuesday approved a bill that only buys more time for a fix if the state loses a court appeal to rescue the program.

Almost 250 committees have been formed for the 2010 elections, and are considering using public campaign financing, however, many are growing increasingly anxious as the program remains in limbo following a federal judge’s ruling that it is unconstitutional. The state has appealed that decision to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

Under the current law, if the appellate court agrees the program is unconstitutional, the legislature has seven days in which to fix it. The measure passed by the House Tuesday increase the deadline to 30 days.

“We call it a short fuse. If we don’t respond within 7 days then the whole program just blows up. We are putting a longer fuse on it,” said House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden. “We have bills that are drafted ready to go depending on what the court decides.”

The House passed the extension 137-12 and it now heads to the Senate.

But Nancy S. Nicolescu, spokesman for the State Elections Enforcement Commission that oversees the program, said it has now been nine months since the program was ruled unconstitutional, and delaying resolution of the problems continues to put the program at risk.

“They didn’t eliminate the ticking time bomb. They just extended it,” she said. “Does it continue to create chaos and uncertainty for candidates? Absolutely.”

Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell supports extending the time to react to 30 days, but in a statement she said she is “disappointed more was not done to save the integrity of the program.”

At risk are hundreds of candidates losing their funding mid-way through their campaigns. It also could upset the ban on campaign contributions from lobbyists and contractors.

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 election campaign. Candidates for other statewide offices and the General Assembly also may qualify for public funding.

Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause of Connecticut, said people have already launched their campaigns with the assumption this money will be there.

“We were hoping they would have fixed this months ago,” she said. “There are still so many questions left to answer.”

The legislature adopted The Citizens’ Election Program in 2005, creating a voluntary system of publicly financing campaigns. The program was available for the first time to legislators in 2008, and 75 percent of the candidates participated. This is the first year candidates for governor and other statewide constitutional offices are eligible.

U.S. District Court Judge Stefan R. Underhill ruled the program unconstitutional last year, saying it discriminates against minor parties by imposing additional burdens to qualify for public financing. The ruling also struck down a section that provided candidates who face high-spending opponents with supplemental grants.

Nicolescu said there are currently 31 candidates who have filed their intent to use public financing, and almost 250 campaign committees exploring using public financing.

Several legislators expressed concern that the legislature has waited this long and still not dealt with the underlying constitutional problems.

“This fix is nothing. It does not address the concerns that were brought up by the trial court or the federal court. …  This is simply a bill that disarms, or deactivates if you will, the time bomb,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero of Norwalk.