Democratic leaders back bill to shorten leash on elections watchdog

House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan’s appointee to the State Elections Enforcement Commission says a budget bill co-sponsored by the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate is about to put the watchdog agency on too short a leash.

A sweeping budget-implementation bill approved Tuesday night by the House limits the tenure of every elections commissioner and ends the agency’s practice of auditing every legislative campaign. The bill now goes to the Senate, where approval is assured.

“It looks like the legislature is dismantling the agency that oversees it,” said Anthony J. Castagno, the commissioner appointed by Donovan. “I’m really surprised that’s the direction the legislature is going.”

Legislative leaders said they are maintaining the independence of the agency, dropping some of the provisions  in a controversial earlier bill that would have stripped the commission of its audit and investigative staff and given control of public financing of campaigns to the secretary of the state’s office.

But without a public hearing or significant input from the commission or the legislators who oversee election law, the legislature is cutting the terms of commissioners from five to three years and barring them from serving consecutive terms.

“Just about the time you become proficient, your term is up,” said Stephen F. Cashman, a Republican appointee of the House minority leader and chairman of the commission. “I don’t understand it.”

Castagno said he has complained to the speaker that the shorter, non-renewable terms will leave the commission as a rubber stamp for a shrinking, reorganized professional staff that will be part of a new Office of Government Accountability.

Cashman made a similar argument in a letter to legislative leaders.

“Our elections and campaign finance laws are not simple,” Cashman wrote. “This is especially so in these historic times as the United States Supreme Court re-writes election law and the Commission implements the landmark Citizens’ Election Program.  A new Commissioner with the SEEC can take a year or longer to become fluent in this diverse and quickly evolving subject matter.  Abruptly cutting off the Commissioners’ ability to serve after 3 years would be a significant blow to the collective intellectual capital of the Commission.”

“The idea is to have fresh people take a fresh look,” Donovan said.

“We don’t want these folks to become entrenched. This particular board has tremendous political power,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.

That power includes reviewing applications by legislative candidates for public financing of their campaigns under the Citizens Election Program, as well as the enforcement of other election laws.

The legislature did not make similar changes in the terms of the other commissions in the Office of Government Accountability. But its relationship with elections enforcement has been strained over the years, especially over the issue of campaign audits.

The commission will continue to audit every statewide campaign, but the bill passed Tuesday by the House limits audits of legislative races to no more than 50 percent of the campaigns.

Last year, an investigation initiated by elections enforcement led to a criminal investigation and the resignation of Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, over double-billing for travel.

The consolidation of the watchdog agencies under one administrative umbrella was proposed by the Malloy Administration, but Benjamin Barnes, the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, said the  administration did not seek the shorter terms.

Williams and Donovan said the idea was developed by legislative staff, though neither leader chose to be more specific. Donovan called it an “ongoing group. Various people got together.”

Rep. Russ Morin, D-Wethersfield, the co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said he did not seek the changes in terms, nor was he sure who proposed them.

Donovan said it was appropriate to remake the elections commission in a budget bill, because the changes were part of a consolidation of agencies proposed to cut spending.

“This is a tough budget,” Donovan said.

But House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said the scope of the changes had little to do with saving money. Any substantive change to the state’s elections watchdog should be subject to public hearing, he said.

“We’re passing legislation left and right that never got a public hearing,” Cafero said.

Karen Hobert Flynn, a vice president of Common Cause, said the organization was troubled that budget implementer bills were being used to change elections laws.

“There’s a lot of stuff that shows up in implementers, and we don’t know why it’s there,” she said. “There’s not a lot of explanation.”

Hobert Flynn said it seems odd to force a constant turnover of elections commissioners, given the complexity of the public financing program it oversees. She also questioned why the change popped up in a budget bill without consulting past or present commissioners.

“It would have been useful to go through a committee hearing process and get input from people who have served on the commission,” she said.