Despite veto threat, lawmakers send bill increasing campaign grants to governor

State lawmakers defied a veto threat by Gov. M. Jodi Rell and voted Friday to double to $6 million the general-election grant for gubernatorial candidates participating in the state’s public financing program.

The bill passed the Senate and House with fewer votes than would be needed to override a veto, but there were enough absences in both chambers to possibly make up the difference when Rell follows through on her warning.

“What is the Legislature thinking?” Rell said in a statement. “They have taken a program that was intended to remove the taint of special interests and corruption from political campaigns and turned it into a welfare program for politicians. When the bill arrives on my desk, it is destined for a swift and certain veto.”

The legislature held a special session Friday to amend the Citizens’ Election Program in response to a recent federal appeals court ruling that said providing additional money to match an opponent’s spending is unconstitutional.

Under the original law, a gubernatorial candidate who qualifies for public financing can get basic grants of $1.25 million for a primary and $3 million for the general election. However, if an opponent who opts out of public financing spends more than a threshold amount, the publicly-financed candidate’s grant could be increased by as much as 100 percent.

Democrat Dan Malloy and Republican Michael Fedele have each received $2.5 million in public financing for their primaries — amounts triggered by the spending of their wealthy and largely self-funded opponents, Democrat Ned Lamont and Republican Tom Foley.

“The idea is to make sure we have a grant that is competitive,” said Sen. Gayle S. Slossberg, D-Milford, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s elections committee, justifying the increase.

The bill increases the basic grant for the general election for governor to $6 million, the maximum a participating candidate could have received under the existing law. Grants for the other statewide races – for attorney general, secretary of the state, comptroller, lieutenant governor and treasurer – remain the same at $375,000 for the primary and $750,000 for the general election.

Rell and Republican leaders have said they object to increasing any grants because of the large deficits the state faces.

“This state is broke. We don’t have any more money to spend,” said Sen. Michael A. McLachlan, R-Danbury.

But Democrats, backed by the legislature’s non-partisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, said the increased grants for the governor’s race already are covered by the program’s $43 million budget for the current election cycle.

“The money is there. It is sitting there,” said Slossberg.

“Just because the money is there doesn’t mean you spend it,” McLachlan responded. “We have the opportunity to spend less money. Let’s do it.”

House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said he cannot justify potentially spending $17 million on public financing for the gubernatorial race alone.

“Why is that important in 2010? Because folks, there are a lot of people hurting out there.” he said. “In the face of that, are we going to say we need to potentially spend $17 million of taxpayer money on a gubernatorial race?”

House Democrats on Friday were circulating a list of campaign spending in previous gubernatorial elections as proof that the existing $3 million general election grant would not be enough.

During the last election, Rell and Fedele together spent $4.1 million compared with $4.7 million spent by their Democratic opponents. In 2002, the GOP ticket of John Rowland and Rell spent $6.5 million compared with $2.3 million by the Democrats.

“A statewide campaign can be run and won without excessive spending,” Rell said. “I spent a total of $4 million on my campaign in 2006. … I know it can be done. At what point do we say ‘enough is enough?’ At what point do we tell legislators that the public purse is closed? I believe we are at that point today.”

State lawmakers must pass, and the governor must sign, changes to the CEP or the whole program is at risk of being invalidated. The way the law is currently written, if one section of the law is ruled unconstitutional, the whole law is thrown out.

The bill passed Friday would fix the sections ruled unconstitutional–a ban on lobbyist contributions as well as the ban on matching grants when facing a highly-financed candidate. It also amended the law so that future court decisions will not put the whole program at risk, but would just throw out the sections ruled unconstitutional.

The bill passed in the Senate 23-12, one vote shy of a veto-proof majority. Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, was absent for the vote. The House voted 75-45, well short of the 101 votes needed to override a veto. However, 31 representative were not present for the vote.