Legislature splits with Malloy over campaign bill

The Connecticut Senate gave final approval early Wednesday to what the national advocacy group Common Cause said would be the strongest campaign-finance disclosure law in the United States.

But the general counsel for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said the bill is plagued by practical and constitutional flaws, an assessment that appears to raise the possibility of a veto by the governor.

And Secretary of the State Denise Merrill objects to a provision that would allow voters to obtain an absentee ballot by email and cast a vote by fax, a practice she said cannot be guaranteed as secure.

Perillo Morin

Rep. Jason Perillo (foreground) and Rep. Russell Morin debating the disclosure bill.

Common Cause said the bill was a strong step toward transparency in campaign finance, despite the objections.

“This is a big disclosure bill,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, vice president of Common Cause. “It will put Connecticut on the map.”

The House voted 94-54 to pass the bill Tuesday. The Senate approved the measure just after midnight on a 20-15 vote.

In the House, seven Democrats, including three deputy speakers, joined 47 Republicans in opposition. Four Republicans voted with 50 Democrats in support.

In the Senate, one Democrat, Andrew Maynard of Stonington, joined all 14 Republicans in opposition.

A reaction to the flow of anonymous dollars into campaigns, the bill would require the disclosure of donations by independent groups that spend money to influence state elections.

The bill essentially answers an invitation by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United, a decision that freed corporations to spend freely on campaigns. The court invited Congress and the states to require stringent disclosure rules.

“We’re not telling the people that make these donations their voices can’t be heard,” said Rep. Russell A. Morin, D-Wethersfield, the co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee. “But we want to know who they are.”

It was opposed by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, which said some of the requirements for corporate boards to expressly approve donations exceeding $4,000 are cumbersome and intrusive. The American Civil Liberties Union also called some of the provisions a violation of free-speech rights.

Iowa has a similar requirement with a lower threshold of $750.

“I’m not sure what the hardship is,” Morin said.

“Well, we’re going to have to agree to disagree on that,” said Rep. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, a member of the elections panel.

Betty Gallo, a lobbyist for the ACLU, said the bill could force the identification of donations that are not now public, such as contributions to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood or the Family Institute of Connecticut.

“That could have a chilling effect,” Gallo said.

Hwang ultimately spoke in favor of passage, despite his reservations about some elements of the bill.

“It allows us to recognize if money is coming into the state,” he said.

Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, co-chairwoman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, defended the bill as making disclosure demands endorsed by the Supreme Court.

“There is no issue of constitutionality. Citizens United is very clear in allowing for disclosure,” Slossberg said.

The bill also imposes stiff fines for the first time.

In 2010, the Democratic and Republican governors’ associations each spent more than $1 million on the Connecticut governor’s race, ignoring existing disclosure provisions that exposed the groups to only a $10,000 fine, Hobert Flynn said.

The new measure imposes a maximum fine of double the expenditure.

“That is a disincentive,” Hobert Flynn said.

A version of the bill presented Saturday to the House Democratic majority caucus also would have increased the public-financing campaign grant for a gubernatorial general-election campaign from $6 million to $9 million.

It was stripped from the bill after Democrats objected.

The bill was an emergency-certified measure that bypassed the committee and public-hearing process, although many elements also were in a version adopted by the Government Administration and Elections Committee.

It was unusual that the Democratic majority went ahead with passage over explicit objections raised by the governor’s office and secretary of the state.

“The governor’s concerns with the bill predate today’s action and have been expressed to legislators for about a week,” said Andrew McDonald, the general counsel.

McDonald said the concerns have nothing to do with the rejection of a larger grant for the 2014 race for governor. Malloy was the first publicly financed candidate to be elected in Connecticut.

“There are practical and legal problems that need to be addressed or considered by the governor before he could act on the legislation,” McDonald said.

Merrill, who was House majority leader before becoming secretary of the state, said her office was caught by surprise over the provision that allows voters to obtain an absentee ballot by email, then cast a vote by fax.

“You waive your right to obtain an anonymous ballot,” Merrill said, though she added she was told that other states have a similar system. “We just haven’t had time to vet it. It didn’t have a public hearing.”