Rank-and-file Democrats balk at campaign finance bill

House and Senate Democratic leaders have agreed on the terms of what would be one of the nation’s strongest campaign-finance disclosure bills, but rank-and-file members in the House objected to a provision that would raise the public-financing grant for a gubernatorial general election to $9 million.

Plans to have the House vote on the measure Saturday were shelved, largely over a proposal to raise the public financing grant for the next gubernatorial race from $1.25 million to $2.5 million for a primary and from $6 million to $9 million for a general election.

The raise is part of a sweeping campaign finance bill that increases the disclosure requirements on independent groups, an increasingly powerful force in modern campaigns, that choose to run television, radio and Internet advertising in Connecticut.

Such groups also would be required to disclose individual donors.

“If this is passed, it would be the strongest disclosure bill in the country, bar none,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, a vice president of Common Cause.

But lobbyists for the groups as diverse as the Connecticut Business and Industry Association and the American Civil Liberties Union said the disclosure requirements are so burdensome as to violate free speech rights.

The bill is calculated to offset the specter of expenditures by independent groups. The bill doubles the expenditures that a political organization could make on behalf of a publicly financed candidate for General Assembly to $20,000 for a state senator and $7,000 for a state representative.

The legislation presented to the House Democratic caucus today is an emergency-certified bill, meaning it bypassed the normal committee and public-hearing process and was endorsed by House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, and Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.

But it encompasses many of the provisions of a bill endorsed by the Government Administration and Elections Committee, which rejected a package of changes sought by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy that would have allowed publicly financed candidates to also accept special interest funds under certain circumstances.

Malloy’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 that when they drafted a compromise in March that the state faced 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 by the committee 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.

Connecticut created the Citizens’ Election Program of public financing 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 participating in the voluntary Citizens’ Election Program.

Clean-election advocates faulted Malloy’s approach on two counts: It would have allowed publicly financed candidates to accept special interest money, which 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.