Spooked by outside dollars, Senate allows unlimited spending by parties

Under legislation approved early Tuesday on a partisan vote in the Senate, state parties would be able to make unlimited expenditures on Connecticut legislative races next year, weakening a campaign finance reform passed in 2005.

The Senate voted 21-14 for final passage of legislation intended to tighten disclosure rules on independent expenditures, while expanding the role of the parties in legislative races. The House passed the bill Saturday, 71-59.

The legislation, which did not attract a Republican vote in either chamber, was sought by the Senate Democratic majority in reaction to independent groups’ spending $500,000 to defeat a handful of Democrats in the closing weeks of the 2012 campaign.

By beefing up the role of the parties, the legislature is seeking a counterweight to big money after Citizens United, a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited campaign spending.

But Republicans unanimously opposed the bill, as did the League of Women Voters, saying the new disclosure rules were confusing at best and, possibly, even weaker than existing law.

“This bill has so many new aspects to campaign finance rules in Connecticut that I wonder if we are creating a whole new legal practice for people,” said Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury.

“This is a case of rushing into something that we might really regret,” said Sen. Joseph Markley, R-Southington. “It’s a very serious step we are taking with little reflection.”

Christine Horrigan, the government affairs director for the nonpartisan League, said before the vote, “If they pass this bill, it’s going to put our campaign finance system on the ropes.”

After a corruption scandal forced the resignation of Gov. John  G. Rowland in 2004, his successor, Gov. M. Jodi Rell, and legislators agreed on sweeping reforms, including a ban on state contractor contributions and the creation of the Citizens Election Program.

The program created a system of public financing in which candidates for legislative and statewide office can obtain public grants – but only if they agree to spending limits ranging from little more than $15,000 for a state House race to $6.25 million for governor.

But the system has no flexibility for participating candidates to respond to a late infusion of dollars by outside groups on negative ads, as occurred two years ago. Most of the candidates already had spent their public grants and were barred from raising more money.

The law originally allowed for supplemental grants, triggered by a non-particpating candidate’s excessive spending or by independent expenditures. But a court decision forced the legislature to abandon triggers in 2010.

State parties were limited in the help they could offer: $3,500 in expenditures on a House race and $10,000 on a Senate race.

Their expenditures under the new law would be limited only by their ability to raise money. The legislation doubles to $10,000 the maximum donation the state parties can accept.

Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, said he was one of about a half-dozen Democrats subjected to last-minute spending of $50,000, mostly on negative mailers and cable commercials.

“We can’t go without providing some protections against what took place” in 2012, Cassano said. “It was wrong, it was sneaky and it was last minute.”

But it didn’t work, said Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield. All the targeted Democrats won in 2012, and in the 2010 race for governor, the winner was outspent in the Democratic primary and general election, he said.

“We’re told it’s a crisis?” McKinney said.

Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said there was an element of luck last year: Storm Sandy knocked out power shortly before the election, leaving hundreds of thousands of voters unable to see the negative cable ads.

Looney likened the influx of late money to giving two evenly matched opponents a set of brass knuckles.

Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, one of those targeted by the late-spending, said similar spending was used successfully against Democrats in North Carolina, flipping control of the state Senate, and against moderate Republicans in Kansas.

Williams said his only regret was that the General Assembly could not do more.

“This bill unfortunately only goes a very short way in providing an ability to fight back with funds that are 100 percent disclosed, 100 percent transparent,” Williams said. “It’s the least we can do to fight for our democracy.”

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