Governor’s controversial campaign finance fix rejected

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s much-maligned proposal to let publicly financed candidates raise unlimited supplemental funds if opposed by a high-spending opponent was rejected Thursday by a legislative committee.

Instead, the Government Administration and Elections Committee increased the public grant for a gubernatorial race from $1.25 million to $2.5 million for a primary and from $6 million to $9 million for the general election.

The changes passed 10-5 on a party-line vote.

The Malloy administration’s proposal to mix public financing and unlimited private cash was roundly panned by Common Cause, the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, the State Elections Enforcement Commission and newspaper editorial boards.

“That was just a conversation starter, and it started conversations,” said Sen. Gayle S. Slossberg, D-Milford. “But it also allowed us to have a very important discussion about how do you have a program that really works.”

Slossberg and Rep. Russell A. Morin, D-Wethersfield, the co-chairs of the committee, said the state faces a challenge in preserving its voluntary program of spending limits and public financing in an era of escalating campaign spending.

“The world is a different place. We need to address that,” Slossberg said. “The idea is to have a functioning system.”

The bill approved Thursday increases disclosure requirements for political action committees, whose ability to influence elections has grown as a result of Citizens United, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that limits the restrictions that can be placed on political spending.

“We really wanted to maintain the integrity of this program, and I think we’ve done that,” Morin said.

Connecticut created the Citizens’ Election Program in 2005 after a corruption scandal forced the resignation of Gov. John G. Rowland. It offered public financing to qualified candidates for state offices ranging from state representative to governor.

To qualify for public financing, a candidate must raise seed money ranging from $5,000 for a state representative to $250,000 for governor. It must come from individuals in small amounts, $5 to $100.

Malloy proposed to allow publicly financed candidates for statewide office to raise unlimited supplemental funds from corporations, unions and other interests if their opponents exceeded the spending limits imposed on participants in the voluntary Citizens’ Election Program.

Clean-election advocates faulted Malloy’s approach on two counts: allowing publicly financed candidates to accept special interest money defeated the purpose of the program, and it appeared to be legally impermissible.

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down campaign finance provisions that provide supplemental funds triggered by an opponent’s spending.

The Malloy administration had no immediate assessment of whether the changes adopted Thursday will keep publicly financed candidates competitive.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Roy Occhiogrosso, the governor’s senior adviser. “Clearly the governor wanted to start a conversation. And that conversation is happening and will continue to happen. This addresses a piece of the concern.”

Occhiogrosso said a publicly financed candidate always will have to risk facing a wealthy opponent who can self-fund a campaign. In 2010, Malloy was outspent by self-funded opponents in the Democratic primary and general election.

“The governor’s goal is to make sure that publicly financed candidates cannot be spent into oblivion while wealthy self-funders buy elections. A fair case can be made that $9 million is plenty of money to run a general election campaign,” Occhiogrosso said.

In 2010, Malloy received $8.5 million in public financing: $2.5 million for the primary and $6 million for the general election. (Before it was struck down by the court, the Connecticut law had a trigger that doubled the $1.25 million primary grant based on spending by his opponent, Ned Lamont.)

Lamont outspent Malloy in the primary, $9 million to $2.5 million. Tom Foley, who was Malloy’s Republican opponent in November, spent $12.7 million on his campaign.

The committee did not change the grant amounts for other offices, saying its review of spending showed that the available public financing for those races was adequate.