Advocates say ‘raids’ jeopardize campaign finance program

Legislative leaders insist they are committed to the state’s public campaign finance program, but advocates say repeated raids on the program’s funding-totaling $48 million so far-to balance the state budget is threatening its survival.

Any more reductions to the program would be a “mortal blow,” says Nancy S. Nicolescu, spokesman for the State Elections Enforcement Commission, which oversees the program.

Nicolescu says the program will have $38 million for the 2010 election cycle, the minimum amount she estimates is needed. The election could cost up to $48 million, she said.

“There is still more than enough money to run the program,” said Sen. Gayle S. Slossberg, D-Milford, Senate chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee.

But if the fund does run dry, candidates counting on public financing could find their campaign budgets curtailed. The law creating the Citizens’ Election Program allows grants to be reduced if funding is insufficient.

Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said he doubts the legislature would appropriate additional funding for the program because of the state’s dire fiscal situation.

“I think it would be very difficult to come up with additional funds,” he said.

Looney also said he could not guarantee the Citizens’ Election Fund would not be further raided prior to November’s election.

Rep. Craig A. Miner of Litchfield, ranking House Republican on the Appropriations Committee, guaranteed he would be going after the fund.

“It doesn’t make sense to leave that untouched,” he said. “We’re facing one of the biggest budget holes and we’re not going to quit paying to put bumper stickers on cars? You have got to be kidding me.”

Several one-time proponents of the program — including Miner and Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia — now see the program’s funding as something that should be weighed against the state’s $726 million deficit for the next fiscal year.

In the Republican’s 2011 budget plan released last week, an additional $3.2 million for administrative costs would be stripped from the Citizens’ Election Fund. Earlier this year, Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposed cutting $12 million to help close the current year deficit, but Democrats negotiated waiting to cut $10 million until after the election.

Regardless of what proposed cuts are on the table, advocates say the $48 million in recent cuts is already putting the program’s existence in danger.

Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause of Connecticut, said the cuts have been “a major hit. It is hard [for candidates] to continue when they don’t know if their funding is guaranteed.”

For general election campaigns, gubernatorial candidates are eligible for $3 million in public financing. Candidates for attorney general and other statewide offices are eligible for $750,000, for state Senate $85,000 and for state House $25,000. Candidates who face primaries are eligible for grants of 40 to 50 percent of the general election amount.

Almost 250 committees have been formed for the 2010 elections and are considering using public campaign financing. Of those, 31 candidates have filed for their intent to use public financing. In 2008, there were 323 candidates running for the General Assembly who used $9 million in public financing – or 75 percent of the candidates. This is the first year public financing is available for gubernatorial and other statewide races.

Slossberg said SEEC’s $48 million estimated cost for the 2010 election is “very, very, very conservative” and is confident the final tally will come in much under $48 million. She said legal uncertainties about the program are reducing participation, and thus cost.

U.S. District Court Judge Stefan R. Underhill last year ruled the program is unconstitutional because it discriminates against minor-party candidates. The state appealed that decision to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York and is awaiting a decision.

Legislators have decided to wait for that decision before addressing the constitutional challenges outlined by Underhill.