Watchdogs worried clean elections fund could run dry in next race for governor

Connecticut's public financing program for state elections has "adequate resources" to fund this year's legislative campaigns, according to a new report released Friday from the state's chief elections watchdogs.

But the State Elections Enforcement Commission warned that due to fiscal raids, the Citizens' Election Fund could come up short in 2014, when races for governor and the legislature are at stake.

"The combination of the recent cuts to the CEF due to budget deficit mitigation and the high cost of statewide elections makes the task of assessing the long-term sufficiency of the CEF particularly challenging," the commission wrote in a report to the General Assembly.

"Absent a statutory change, this drastically reduced funding will continue and it is completely foreseeable that this will ultimately result in an insufficiency of the fund."

The "drastically reduced funding" the commission referred to is the result of:

  • Seven raids, totaling $58.5 million, of the Citizens' Election Fund ordered between 2008 and 2010 by the legislature and then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell;
  • A 40 percent cut to the state's annual deposit into the program, from $18.6 million to $10.6 million, approved last spring by lawmakers and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Most of the cuts ordered between 2008 and 2010 were efforts between Rell, a Republican, and the Democratic-controlled legislature, to avoid more painful spending cuts or tax increases as Connecticut's economy moved into what many economists have called "the Great Recession."

But those types of fiscal decisions also helped create the mammoth-sized deficit that Malloy, a Democrat, inherited when he took office in January 2011. The 40 percent cut he and legislators ordered in regular payments into the elections fund was just one of an array of controversial moves used to close a state budget deficit for 2011-12 projected to be as high as $3.67 billion.

The fund currently has just over $18.5 million on hand, and the commission projects that it will need $10.1 million to cover campaign grants to legislative candidates this summer and fall. In both the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, another $3 million was drawn each year from the fund to cover administrative expenses.

Those projections, if correct, would leave about $5 million in the fund. Add $10.6 million deposits due in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 fiscal years, and more than $26 million should be available by the summer of 2014.

But the 2010 election cycle cost $30.5 million to cover candidate grants and administrative expenses. And in the gubernatorial race -- the single-most expensive statewide contest -- Republican Tom Foley did not participate in public financing.

Gubernatorial candidates are entitled to grants of $3 million for a primary and $6 million for the general election.

"We've been concerned for a while about the constant raids on the Citizens' Election Program," Karen Hobert Flynn, vice president of state operations for Common Cause, said Friday. "In difficult times, the legislature and governor have undermined the integrity of this program."

The Citizens' Election Program was one of the linchpins of a landmark overhaul of Connecticut's campaign finance system undertaken in 2005 in response to several corruption scandals, most notably, the bid-rigging scheme that led former Gov. John G. Rowland to serve 10 months in federal prison.

Rell, Rowland's successor, also worked with lawmakers in 2005 to restrict lobbyist and contractor contributions, stem the proliferation of legislator-controlled political action committees and close a loophole that allowed businesses to fund campaigns by purchasing ads in political program books.

But Flynn noted that when the elections fund was created, it wasn't set up to provide a fiscal safety net for overall state finances. "The legislature and the governor created a dedicated fund to ensure there would be adequate resources for this program to thrive and continue."

"For those of us who are believers of this type of campaign financing, the cuts are a concern," said Rep. Russell Morin, D-Wethersfield, the House chairman of the legislature's Government Administration and Elections Committee, who added that he thinks Malloy and the legislature will improve the fund's fiscal standing before the 2014 election cycle.

"I'm sure we'll be able to address it," he said. "It certainly is an important program."

"We agree with the report; without new legislation, the CEF could run into problems," Malloy's office wrote in a statement Friday. "We're confident that we have time to address it."