Legislative panel tackles contractors, cross-endorsements and ethics before deadline

The General Assembly's elections panel endorsed a measure Friday that would allow state contractors to contribute to municipal politics -- but opted against lifting a ban on contractor money in state races.

The Government Administration and Elections Committee finished its deadline work Friday, also approving a bill that would ban candidate cross-endorsements on election ballots.

The committee, which technically faces a deadline Monday but has no plans to meet before then, also allowed a controversial ethics measure proposed by 2010 GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley to die without a vote.

Contractors have been unable to contribute to state or municipal campaigns since 2005, when the legislature enacted a major campaign finance reform plan.

Lobbyists also had been banned at first, but challenged the law in court. And in 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals in the 2nd Circuit concluded that ban violated free-speech rights under the First Amendment.

So should the ban on contractors be lifted as well?

The committee raised a bill to do so, but ultimately decided that went too far. The compromise was to allow contractors to contribute to municipal party committees in their hometown.

Such committees typically spend money on fliers, phone banks, door-to-door campaigning and similar grassroots functions, not high-priced television and radio ads, said Sen. Anthony Musto, D-Trumbull, co-chairman of the GAE committee.

"This is the kind of direct access to democracy people think of when they think of campaigns," he said. "And it does cost money."

Common Cause of Connecticut, a clean elections advocacy group, had testified against the original bill. The organization's executive director, Cheri Quickmire, said her group is pleased a removal of all restrictions on contractors wasn't embraced, but remains concerned about allowing contributions at the local level.

"I think we have a long history of abuse ... when we're talking about state contractors" and elections, she said.

A second measure approved by the committee Friday would end the ability of most major-party candidates to simultaneously appear on the ballot on a minor-party line.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, has been spearheading the end of cross-endorsements, arguing it can cause voter confusion -- or worse.

Williams says allowing a candidate's name to appear multiple times on a ballot invites mischief from political action committees fueled with huge business dollars -- dubbed Super PACs -- which can make unlimited independent expenditures.

This proposal divided the GAE committee, with most of the panel's Democratic majority voting for the bill, while Republicans opposed it.

"This is a clear hit on democracy in the state," said Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury.

But Rep. Brian Sear, D-Canterbury, said "the freedoms in our [election] system can be abused."

And while he said he supports giving minor parties a voice to express which candidates they support -- even candidates from major parties -- lawmakers should continue to work on the bill to see if there are abuses of cross-endorsements that should be stopped. The regular legislative session ends on June 5.

The GAE committee took one more step Friday by taking no action.

Specifically, the panel killed a measure that would have prevented any public officials, state employees or members of their immediate families from working for any business or organization that is minimally supported by state funds or employs a lobbyist.

Though Sen. Joseph Markley, R-Southington, introduced the measure, Foley was the author and prime backer of the bill.

"The Democrats did not support it. The Republicans did not support it," Musto said. "No one supported it."

Foley, who was largely rebuffed by lawmakers when he testified last month in favor of the bill, told The Mirror on Friday that he wasn't surprised by the panel's inaction. In a part-time legislature, many members work other jobs and several would be affected by this bill, including House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero of Norwalk, a potential rival of Foley's for the 2014 GOP gubernatorial nomination.

"This is a good government bill," he said. "Why wouldn't they want to vote on it and raise it to the [House and Senate] floor? Who are they trying to protect? It's a club up there and nobody wants to upset the applecart."