Boosting public financing for campaigns is off the table

If Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy runs for re-election as a publicly financed candidate next year, he can expect a state grant of only $6 million, less than half the $12.8 million spent by his Republican opponent, Tom Foley, in 2010.

With the state struggling to balance the budget, Malloy has ruled out a repeat of last year’s unsuccessful effort by some legislators in the closing days of the annual session to increase the general-election grant from $6 million to $9 million.

“We’re not proposing that there be more taxpayer dollars that go into what a gubernatorial candidate receives,” said Mark Ojakian, the governor’s chief of staff.

Administration officials acknowledge that pushing for a higher grant would alienate voters and even Democratic legislators, who already are objecting to hardships imposed by the governor’s proposed budget.

That doesn’t mean that Malloy and Democratic legislative leaders, especially those in the state Senate, who saw several colleagues come under a late season attack by a Super PAC last year, are sanguine.

“We haven’t gotten to it,” said House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden. “The Newtown issue has been all-consuming so far.”

Once the legislative response to the Newtown school massacre is resolved, which leaders say they hope will come next week, the budget will be the top issue But campaign finance will have a place on the legislative to-do list.

The session ends at midnight June 5.

Last year, Malloy’s efforts to loosen the limits of the Citizen Election Program, which oversees public financing of campaigns, met with heated public opposition from clean-election advocacy groups, such as Common Cause.

An alternative drafted by legislators to boost the gubernatorial grant to $9 million fared no better, provoking an embarrassing revolt by House Democrats on the weekend before adjournment that forced leaders to abruptly cancel a vote on the measure.

But the issue remains.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and its spawn, Super PACs that can accept and spend unlimited corporate dollars for independent expenditures, are the X factor in every race.

In Malloy’s case, he has to handicap what Foley or some other Republican might spend in 2014 — and also wonder if some independent group might decide to spend millions of dollars to unseat him.

Clean-election advocates fear that reforms passed in 2005 after a corruption scandal forced the resignation and eventual federal conviction of Gov. John G. Rowland could be sacrificed as politicians look for easier ways to raise money.

The legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee postponed action Wednesday on the repeal of a law passed at the insistence of Rowland’s successor, Gov. M. Jodi Rell: a ban on campaign contributions by state contractors and their families to candidates for state office.

The panel endorsed and sent to the floor bills that would strengthen the fundraising muscle of the Democratic and Republican state central and town committees.

Contribution limits would increase from $5,000 to $10,000 for donations to a state party committee and from $1,000 to $2,000 for a local town committee. The state party can in turn give as much as $50,000 to a candidate for governor.

Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, the ranking GOP senator on the committee, said self-funding candidates are not the threat once imagined.

“Linda’s proven to us that it doesn’t work,” he said, referring to Linda McMahon, who spent $100 million on back-to-back races for the U.S. Senate, handily losing both.

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.

But Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, who has proposed legislation requiring more complete disclosure of donors to Super PACs, as well as their spending, said the era of big money and independent expenditures is here.

Common Cause says about $600,000 was spent by outside groups, primarily in an unsuccessful effort to defeat a half-dozen Democratic senators. Operatives in both parties say the money was poorly spent.