Friday a critical day for public financing

For publicly-financed political candidates facing wealthy self-funders, Friday is a crucial day.

State lawmakers are planning to convene then to address the recent federal appellate court ruling barring publicly- funded candidates from being awarded additional money if their opponents’ spending exceeds statutory thresholds.

The decision has special significance for the gubernatorial race.

Democratic leaders want to raise the total amount available under public financing. Republicans, including Gov. M. Jodi Rell, don’t. After an hour-long meeting in Rell’s office Wednesday, the question was unresolved.

“There isn’t any agreement on that now,” said Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.

At issue is a provision in the state Clean Elections law that automatically provides additional money to a publicly-funded candidate if his or her opponent spends more than a certain amount. The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and other federal courts in the country, have ruled that such “trigger” mechanisms violate the free-speech rights of self-funded candidates.

Under the law, gubernatorial candidates, for example, are given a grant of $3 million if they qualify for public financing. The trigger mechanism would give them up to $3 million more.

Karen Hobert Flynn, Vice President for State Operations at Common Cause, a supporter of the Citizens Election Program,  said she believes the base grants should be doubled, to $6 million, so candidates running for governor can remain competitive.

But Rell, Republican lawmakers and Connecticut Republican Party Chairman Chris Healy overwhelmingly object.

“I am not supporting raising that threshold. I told the leaders that today,” Rell said. “[Gubernatorial candidates] will get $3 million and that’s more than enough. And if their opponent is very, very wealthy and wants to spend $20 million, what are we going to do? Give them $8, $10, $12, $20 million? The answer is no.”

House Minority Leader Larry Cafero of Norwalk agreed.

“I would still advocate that as a state we cannot afford campaign finance,” he said.

House Speaker Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden, said he has already asked the legislature’s budget office to look into if the current $46 million allocated this election cycle for the Citizens’ Election Program is enough to increase the grants, or if it would cost the state more money.

“Given the reality of the candidates running, would increasing the grants to candidates fall within the budget? I believe it would,” Donovan said.

Whatever the legislature does Friday could have a significant impact on the gubernatorial race, among others. Both major party primary races pit wealthy candidates who are raising their own money against publicly-funded opponents.

On the Republican side, the two top contenders are businessman Tom Foley and publicly-financed Michael Fedele. A third Republican, Oz Greibel, also raising his own funds, lags both in money and the polls.

On the Democratic ticket, millionaire Ned Lamont is challenging publicly-funded Dan Malloy.

“I expect it to be fixed,” said Malloy, who has already received more than $2 million in public financing for the primary and could face Foley in the general election, who has already spent $2.4 million of his own money on the campaign. “I am relying on the system.”

Fedele, who attended Wednesday’s meeting in his role as lieutenant governor, said he made the decision to participate in public financing with the assumption that matching grants would be available.

“They have to provide a venue for a clean election candidate,” he said, but not going so far as to saying he supports increasing the grants. “What you signed up for is not going to be there. You have to, at least in this election cycle, provide something.”

The Aug. 10 party primaries will determine what the final gubernatorial lineup will be, which puts some pressure on the legislature to act before then.

“We don’t want to be seen as reacting to the primary,” Donovan said.

Cafero agreed.

“You have to be careful not to react, to make laws just based upon on the current circumstance of who’s running and who might win and who might not. I mean that’s a dangerous thing,” he said.

Cafero said that rather than increasing the public grant, the legislature could allow publicly-funded candidates to receive up to $250 donations for their campaigns instead of the current $100 limit.

Rell said when the legislature convenes on Friday, they should just fix just the parts of the program that were ruled unconstitutional two weeks ago: the matching grants and the ban on lobbyist contributions.

“I’d rather fix what the problem is and let the future legislature deal with whatever tweaks and twists they want to do,” Rell said.