The Senate Democratic majority’s leadership yielded Monday to a toothless compromise on the question of capping the unlimited expenditures the state parties now can make on General Assembly races in Connecticut.
With a signoff from the Senate, the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee voted to revise campaign finance legislation to cap state party expenditures on a legislative race at $250,000.
A $250,000 cap is more than 10 ten times the limit proposed Friday in public-hearing testimony by House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden. Had the $250,000 cap been in place last year, it would have had no impact on any race.
“It’s bogus,” said Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, the ranking Senate Republican on the committee. “It’s totally bogus.”
Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, the co-chairman, said, “We put it in because people wanted a cap.”
Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, the committee co-chairman, said the bill reported out of committee Monday was just the starting point in negotiations expected to take place at the highest levels of legislative leadership.
“Let’s just say it may not be the end of discussions,” Jutila said.
By repealing a $10,000 cap in 2013, the legislature opened a loophole in Connecticut’s system of publicly financing campaigns — essentially allowing the parties to funnel unlimited special-interest money to taxpayer-supported candidates.
A foundational element of the voluntary public financing program was a cap on spending and contributions, but Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the Democratic majority neutered those limits in 2013 with revisions allowing unlimited coordinated expenditures on legislative races by the state parties.
The result is that state parties are free to funnel unlimited amounts of money from major donors to taxpayer-supported campaigns. Donors who can only give $100 directly to a publicly financed candidate can indirectly give them $10,000 through the state party.
The changes were sought by Senate Democrats as a defensive measure in 2013. The previous year, a super PAC had tried to ambush a half-dozen vulnerable Democrats with a flurry of late attack ads.
None of the incumbent senators lost, but the episode made the Senate Democrats resolve to give the state parties the ability to supplement the public grants given to candidates who qualify for public financing.
In 2014, only one candidate fully took advantage of the changes: Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr., D-Branford, accepted about $95,000 in public financing, plus $205,000 from the state party and another $60,000 from other committees.
Democrats say they anticipated that Kennedy’s family name would draw negative ads from national conservatives eager to defeat a member of an iconic liberal Democratic family.
But the attacks never came.