House tightens disclosure, loosens spending rules for campaigns

The Connecticut House voted 71-59 early Saturday to revise sweeping campaign finance reforms adopted in 2005 after scandal toppled a governor, with Democrats and Republicans arguing whether the changes represented progress or backsliding.

The legislation is a double-barreled reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United ruling that permits unlimited independent expenditures: It requires greater disclosure of the resources behind of those expenditures, but it allows party committees to play the same game.

Rep. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, said the measure was less a reform than an endorsement of a political arms race in which legislative leadership PACs and party committees now can make their own unlimited expenditures.

“If we can’t beat ‘em, let’s join em?” Hwang said.

It also allows those committees to underwrite negative advertising for the first time.

“Ladies and gentlemen, that’s a big change,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk. “I would suggest to you that’s a broken promise.”

Democrats defended the legislation as necessary to adapt to the changing political environment.

“The reality is we are in a different world than we were in 2005, when we adopted campaign finance reforms in Connecticut, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens Unilted,” said House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden.

Several state senators, including Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, were the targets of significant independent expenditures in 2012.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat who is the first governor elected under Connecticut’s system of publicly financed campaigns, has been pushing for new rules in anticipation of facing opposition from independent groups in his 2014 re-election campaign.

“The governor strongly disagrees with the Citizens United decision. But since the U.S. Supreme Court has said we cannot limit independent expenditures, we can at least make sure that everyone knows where the money comes from,” said Luke Bronin, Malloy’s general counsel.

But the legislation does far more than require disclosure. It would allow legislators to use the Democratic and Republican state central committees to supplement their public grants and better compete with a wealthy opponent or third-party spending.

The legislation doubles to $10,000 the maximum donation the state parties can accept and removes the limits on what the party or legislative leadership political action committees can spend in support of or opposition to candidates.

Connecticut’s Citizens Election Program, which offers public grants to qualifying candidates for statewide constitutional office and the legislature, was created in 2005 after Gov. John G. Rowland resigned during an impeachment inquiry.

He later pleaded guilty to a federal corruption charge and served about 10 months in prison.

His successor, Gov. M. Jodi Rell, won legislative approval of a ban on contributions by state contractors and limits on contributions by lobbyists. In return, she acceded to a demand by Democratic legislators for the nation’s most extensive system of public financing.

Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-Southbury, who was co-chairman of the bipartisan impeachment committee, said the legislation passed Saturday was a retreat from the steps taken in 2005 to blunt the influence of money in state politics.

Thirteen Democrats joined all 46 Republicans present in opposition. Twenty legislators — 14 Democrats and six Republicans — missed the vote at 2:54 a.m.