Public campaign financing

A major question hanging over the races for governor and other state offices in 2010 is the status of Connecticut’s new voluntary system of publicly financing campaigns, the Citizens’ Election Program.

U.S. District Court Judge Stefan R. Underhill struck down the program as unconstitutional in August 2009, calling it a well-intentioned effort to combat corruption that discriminates against minor-party candidates.

Unless his ruling is overturned or legislators amend the law, gubernatorial candidates who were counting on as much as $4.25 million in public financing for primary and general-election campaigns will have to scramble for funds.

The Citizens’ Election Program is part of a sweeping reform law passed in 2005 in reaction to a string of corruption cases, including the resignation and conviction of Gov. John G. Rowland.  It banned contributions from lobbyists and state contractors and, in the case of legislative races, restricted political action committees.

It provides grants to major party candidates for both party primaries and general elections. (A major party is one whose candidate for governor received at least 20 percent of the vote in the most recent election; Republicans and Democrats are the only two major parties currently.)

Minor party candidates get no funding unless the party got at least 10 percent of the vote in the preceding election for the office they are seeking, or unless they collect an equal number of petition signatures from registered voters. At that point they are eligible for reduced grants on a sliding scale.

Underhill concluded that the Citizens’ Election Program “acts as an impermissible subsidy for major party candidates, rather than a permissible substitute for those traditional sources of funding.”

The judge said that minor-party candidates have too high a burden to qualify for public financing.  The threshold for major-party status in Connecticut is winning 20 percent of the vote in a previous election.

The state is appealing Underhill’s decision to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.  The legislature may also try to amend the law if necessary to have public financing in effect for the 2010 election.

About 75 percent of legislative candidates used public financing in 2008. This is the first year the money would have been available in statewide races. Congressional candidates are not eligible.

In the governor’s race, the disappearance of public financing would provide a major advantage to two independently wealthy politicians: Republican Tom Foley and Democrat Ned Lamont.

Foley, who is a declared candidate for governor, already has said he will privately fund his campaign. Foley was a major fundraiser for George W. Bush, who named Foley ambassador to Ireland.

Lamont pointed to the presence of Foley in the race as a reason to opt out of public financing. In 2006, Lamont spent $17 million of his own money in a challenge to U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman.

Exploratory or declared candidates for governor who intend to use public financing include Democrats Juan Figueroa, Mary Glassman, Dannel P. Malloy, Rudy Marconi and at least two Republicans, Lt. Gov. Michael C. Fedele and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton.

How it works:

All candidates must raise a threshold amount from individual contributions of $100 or less to qualify for grants:

Office

Qualifying amount

Governor

$250,000

*Other state officers

$75,000

State Senate

$15,000

State House

$5,000

Once they qualify, major party candidates are eligible for grants. The grants may vary in some special circumstances, but these are the base amounts:

Office

Primary grant

General election grant

Governor

$1.25 million

$6 million

*Other State Offices

$375,000

$750,000

State Senate

$35,000

$85,000

State House

$10,000

$25,000

Minor party candidates, however, are eligible only for general election grants, and only if their party’s candidate received a certain percentage of the vote in the previous election for that office or they collect an equivalent number of petition signatures:

Office

10 percent

15 percent

20 percent

Governor

$1 million

$2 million

$3 million

*Other State Offices

$250,000

$500,000

$750,000

State Senate

$28,333

$55,667

$85,000

State House

$8,333

$16,667

$25,000

Participating candidates generally could not spend more than the qualifying contributions and the public grant, meaning that a gubernatorial candidate participating in the Citizens’ Election Program would be limited to $4.5 million for a primary and general election.

Candidates who accept public financing would be eligible for supplemental grants to match to match spending by privately financed candidates, up to 100 percent of the original grant.

*Candidates for the constitutional offices of lieutenant governor, secretary of the state, treasurer, comptroller and attorney general are eligible for primary grants. Candidates for lieutenant governor are not eligible for general election grants because they run on the same line as the governor.

 

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