GOP balks, Dems listen on fate of Independent Party

The Independent Party will survive. 

Now, attention turns today to whether the same can be said of sweeping campaign finance reforms passed in 2005 as Connecticut watched a former governor go to prison.

With Republicans threatening an end-of-session filibuster, Senate Democrats have given up on trying to force a name change in a party that cross-endorsed GOP candidates in 2012. 

“It was decided yesterday in about five minutes,” Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said Thursday night.

As for the rest of the bill, House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said the parties may disagree, but there is nothing as provocative as stripping the conservative-leaning Independent Party of its name.

“Let’s put it this way, we can convert from a nuclear battle to a more conventional battle,” Sharkey said.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, was not so sure. He said the Democrats still are trying to hobble the Independent Party by referring to petitioning parties as “independent.”

A draft of campaign-reform legislation that circulated earlier this week included a provision banning  “independent” as a party name, just as “unaffiliated” is banned under existing law as confusing.

Republicans erupted.

They complained that Independent Party was deemed confusing only after it cross-endorsed Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate and Congress, including Linda McMahon and Andrew Roraback.

“It is an arrogant power grab. It is unconstitutional,” Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said Wednesday.

“It’s incredibly offensive,” Cafero said. His city of Norwalk was once governed by an Independent mayor.

It also was really bad timing. Democrats hold majorities of 98-52 in the House and 22-14 in the Senate, but the filibuster is a potent weapon at the end of the annual legislative session.

The Democrats ticked off the GOP at the most inopportune moment.

Cafero shrugged when asked why the Democrats tried something so inflammatory at a time when the GOP has its greatest ability to influence the General Assembly’s agenda.

“Listen, we don’t pick when they call them, and we don’t pick what they call. But at this time of year, anything that offensive, you gotta do what you gotta do,” Cafero said. “This place would come to a screeching halt.”

The 2013 session ends at midnight Wednesday, and its to-do list still includes a state budget – as well as a still-evolving campaign-finance bill expected to require greater disclosure of the money behind independent expenditures.

The bill was being negotiated Thursday by Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate. With larger districts and more expensive races, sources say the Senate Democrats have been more aggressive about access to more resources.

Sharkey acknowledge members of the two chambers have different concerns and priorities for a campaign finance bill, though he declined to share specifics.

“It’s certainly a factor. I don’t think that’s the cause of the delay,” Sharkey said. “But clearly there are things that affect each house differently.”

Senior Democratic staff declined to share a copy of the latest draft Thursday night, but a 98-page version provided today by a GOP legislator shows new disclosure rules for persons and entities making independent expenditures to influence elections.

Campaign-finance reform advocates said they would be watching to see if state contractors are permitted to contribute again, or if limits are lifted on how much money party committees can spend on legislative races.

“I would not be supportive of attempts to retreat from a lot of the good government steps we’ve taken with regard to lobbyist contributions, contractor contributions and limiting the role, to the extent we can of political action committees and party committees in our races,” McKinney said Thursday night.

Williams said he thinks that the bill will retain the ban on contributions by state contractors enacted in 2005 after a corruption scandal forced the resignation of Gov. John G. Rowland and the legislature adopted a system of publicly financing campaigns.

Repealing the restrictions on contributions by lobbyists and the role they can play in fundraising is not on the table, he said.

“To me, that would be the death knell of campaign finance reform,” William said. “That’s not going to happen.”