A whodunit at the state Capitol

Oh, the state Capitol loves its mysteries.

Try this one: Who wrote a provision in the newly revised budget that shifts control over the public financing of campaigns from the non-partisan State Elections Enforcement Commission to a partisan elected official, the secretary of the state?

Not us, says the governor’s staff. Or us, says the secretary of the state’s office. Or us, say the leaders of the House and Senate, the committee that approved the budget, and the panel responsible for elections law.

“Somebody had to write the goddamned thing,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, vice president of Common Cause.

One would think.

But after a week of making calls and knocking on doors at the state Capitol and Legislative Office Building, Hobert Flynn can’t find anyone willing to own up to the changes.

“From our standpoint, there’s lots of questions and problems and not a lot of answers,” Hobert Flynn said.

“The legislative process has never been accused of being perfect,” said gubernatorial adviser Roy Occhiogrosso, who was a House and Senate staffer earlier in his career. “That track record remains unbroken. Clearly, there are things in the package that are imperfect. This is one of them.”

One thing is clear: Gov. Dannel P. Malloy put the elections commission in play in February by proposing to consolidate 11 watchdog agencies with responsibilities ranging from overseeing judicial conduct to freedom of information into an Office of Governmental Accountability.

The concept was to have common administrative staffs, while keeping each unit’s specialized function intact as divisions within the new OGA.

But when the Appropriations Committee voted last week to send a revised budget proposal to the House, the State Elections Enforcement Commission no longer was moving intact into the new watchdog agency.

Its staff of 52 was scattered. Only eight jobs moved to OGA, while 15 were eliminated, one moved to the Auditors of Public Accounts and 25 associated with the Citizens’ Election Program, as the public-financing law is formally known, were earmarked for the secretary of the state’s office.

“This is a disaster. It makes no sense. I do not support it,” said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, the co-chairwoman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, which is supposed to oversee elections law. “This came out of the blue, from behind closed doors.”

“I was shocked,” said Rep. Russell A. Morin, D-Wethersfield, the other co-chairman.

“That was not mine,” said Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee. She added, “I don’t think that’s been etched in stone.”

Splitting the functions of the State Elections Enforcement Commission three ways seemed to be the opposite of Malloy’s call for consolidation, and handing the Citizens’ Election Program to the secretary of the state never was subjected to a public hearing, Morin and Slossberg said.

On the same day earlier this week, Morin demanded and obtained a meeting with House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, while Slossberg, whose relationship with Senate leadership is strained, confronted the governor’s senior adviser, Occhiogrosso.

“We don’t think it is a good idea,” Occhiogrosso said.

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; as originally written, the law provided for initial grants of $1.25 million for a primary and $3 million for the general election. Those amounts could be doubled if a non-participating opponent exceeded certain spending limits.

The first statewide candidate to qualify was Malloy, whose campaign was fortified with $8.5 million in public money, allowing him to defeat self-funding millionaires in the Democratic primary and general election. Spending by his primary opponent triggered a supplemental grant of $1.25 million in the primary.

After a court decision banned supplemental grants triggered by an opponent’s spending, the legislature doubled the general-election grant from $3 million to $6 million.

Left unclear by the new budget language is exactly who would approve candidates’ applications for public financing in the future. Under current law, the elections enforcement commission has the final word, based on the recommendation of its staff.

Will the secretary of the state perform that function?

No one will say. Secretary of the State Denise Merrill was out of state, but her deputy, James F. Spallone, said he believes that question is unresolved.

“There’s a lot of details to be worked out,” Spallone said. “I hate the cliche, but it’s a work in progress.”

He said that Merrill, who was House majority leader until January, did not lobby for the change.

“It was not our initiative,” said Spallone, who was House co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee until January. “When asked, we always said we were willing to help with the consolidation of services.”

Spallone said they learned of the secretary’s proposed new role only when the new budget language was produced last week. While Spallone said his office did not seek the change, he defended it and insisted it could work well. The attorney general is a partisan elected official, Spallone noted, yet he often is called up to handle politically sensitive matters.

But Hobert Flynn questioned if any elected official really wants to be in the middle of the fights that occur over public financing. Merrill is a diligent and well-respected official, she said, but no partisan elected office holder should be in a position to control the public financing program, especially when the secretary’s campaign might be publicly financed.

In 2010, one Republican candidate for governor, Tom Foley, tried to block public financing for a GOP rival, Michael C. Fedele. Michael Jarjura, a Democratic candidate for comptroller, made a similar effort to stop funding of his party rival, Kevin Lembo. Both failed.

“It’s important to maintain the independence,” Hobert Flynn said.

In a letter to the governor and Democratic legislative leaders, Hobert Flynn joined Cheri Quickmire, the executive director of Common Cause, and Christine Horrigan, the vice president of public affairs for the League of Women Voters, in saying that the changes will undermine the credibility and integrity of the program.

“Whoever serves as the Secretary of the State is a partisan elected official who may again run under the program that he or she would be tasked with overseeing,” they wrote. “This plan creates an appearance that a partisan elected official controls who gets grants and who does not.  Should the Secretary be willing to sign off on a grant application when there are no auditors to review the application to make sure that the qualifying contributions that a candidate collected are actually eligible?”

Common Cause and the League of Women Voters have concerns beyond who ends up in charge of the Citizens’ Election Program. The proposed budget also cuts by $8 million the money available for candidates.

If it is a permanent cut, there will not be enough money for the 2014 elections. If there are insufficient funds, the Commission must by law reduce payment amounts to candidates and allow them to raise money from prohibited sources – like PACs and wealthy donors to fill the gap,” wrote Hobert Flynn and her colleagues. “That will be a devastating blow to this historic and sweeping good government program.”