Money and elections: One issue dealt with, another left hanging

When it comes to how money influences elections, state lawmakers were quick to deal with a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing organizations to spend unlimited dollars on political speech. But they decided to put off addressing another federal court ruling that threatens their own system of publicly financing campaigns.

"I would have preferred to take care of this now," Rep. James F. Spallone, D-Essex, co-chairman of the legislature's Government Administration and Elections Committee, said of the state's campaign finance program. "Sometimes it takes a real crisis rather than a speculative one to focus people."

Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell also said she was disappointed that no legislation was sent to her desk to fix the program.

"I begged them to do something during the session," she said.

The state's Citizens' Election Program is at risk of being thrown out by a federal appeals court mid-election season, a troublesome possibility to candidates depending on public financing to run their campaigns.

Almost 250 committees have been formed for the 2010 elections, and are considering using public campaign financing. There are currently 31 candidates who have filed their intent to use public financing.

But that wasn't enough to spur the Democratic majority into fixing the Citizens' Election Program during their three-month session.

"What's the point in doing a bill on campaign finance when the [appellate court] hasn't ruled?" said Senate President Donald E. Williams of Brooklyn.

The program was ruled unconstitutional by U.S. District Court Judge Stefan R. Underhill in August 2009, in part because he said it discriminates against minor parties. His ruling is on hold pending a decision in the state's appeal by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.

Williams said the two bills addressing the lower courts constitutional challenges are "ready to go" if the court upholds Underhill's ruling.

The legislature did take steps in reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, passing a bill that brings state law into conformance with the high court's ruling that allows businesses and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on political speech.

But state lawmakers also established a public reporting requirement for organizations and businesses that spend more than $1,000 on candidate or party advocacy.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 24 states currently prohibit or restrict corporate or union spending. Four states have updated their disclosure laws in response to the court's ruling in Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission. Seven other states are considering legislation to do so.

The Supreme Court ruling explicitly says that corporations can be required to disclose the money spent.

This information could easily be made viewable to the public using the current online searchable database used for other campaign finance filings.

"It's a shame our law is no longer valid. But this is the law of the land now so we should at least require disclosure of who is spending money," Spallone said.

It is unclear if Rell will sign it into law, but the measure passed almost unanimously in both the House and the Senate.

The bill also requires that a "paid for by" disclosure be included on all political media distributed.

The Supreme Court ruling is expected to result in a flood of political commercials and mailings by businesses and lobbyists this upcoming statewide election.

The bill would only require disclosure for state races; federal election rules are established by Congress.

A recent legislative report outlines what other states are doing to react to the Supreme Court ruling. Some, like Ohio and Pennsylvania, are reviewing the case and have not yet decided how to proceed. At least one, Montana, has said its ban will remain until it is successfully challenged in court. Most have introduced bills that, among other things, repeal the independent expenditure ban; require stockholder approval prior to an independent expenditure; or establish corporate disclosure requirements for independent expenditures.

Spallone said, while he knows of no one pleased with the Supreme Court ruling, he said if unlimited spending is going to be permitted, it should at least be regulated.

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