Should the state’s public campaign finance program bankroll uncontested races?
The answer to that question depends on whom you ask.
“We are always defending these grants for uncontested races,” said Beth A. Rotman, director of the Citizens’ Election Program. “It’s very important we give them the opportunity to get their message out there.”
“It’s definitely not a lot of money and we can expect to get a lot of it back,” she added
There are 45 uncontested legislative races this year; so far four of those candidates have received a total of $31,000. That amount will likely grow, because several more candidates have indicated they plan to seek public funding, and they have until the first week of October to apply.
During the last election cycle, the program paid out $263,000 to uncontested candidates running for state House or Senate and another $221,000 to those facing a write-in or a minor-party candidate. Those lawmakers spent half of those grants and returned the remainder.
Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford, whose only opponent was a write-in candidate who received five votes, said he decided to spend $18,400 from a public financing grant so what he stands for would be heard by his constituents.
“Just because you are unchallenged in a race does not mean that you should be unconnected from your constituents,” said McDonald, who spent the money on brochures that he mailed and handed out. “Opposed or unopposed, I still have a responsibility to actively campaign. It’s your chance to hear what people have to say.”
But not everyone agrees. Gov. M. Jodi Rell, the The Democratic co-chair of the legislature’s elections committee, and House Republicans all have recommended in recent months discontinuing grants for uncontested races.
“I believe these grants for the sake of fiscal responsibility should be eliminated or drastically reduced,” said Rep. James Spallone, D-Essex, co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee. “We are talking about public money and I believe it can be used more effectively.”
In Connecticut, candidates in uncontested races are eligible for a 30 percent grant — $25,500 for state Senate and $7,500 for the House. In 2008, Maine’s public financing system provided 40 percent of the base grant, or $7,631 for uncontested Senate races and $1,658 for the House, according to the Government Accountability Office. In Arizona, the state matches the sum of the $5 donations an unopposed candidate raises to qualify for the program. If they raise the minimum needed, they will receive $1,100.
House Minority Leader Larry Cafero, R-Norwalk, now an avid critic of the program, signed up for public financing two years ago.
“I signed up for the program not knowing whom I would be facing and if I would need that money to compete,” he said this week.
At first he had no opposition, so he received a $7,500 grant as an uncontested candidate. When a third-party candidate, whom he described as a “long shot,” joined the race, Cafero became eligible for another $7,500. He says he tried unsucessfully to turn down the second grant.
“This guy I was up against was never expected to win. He even said he had no intention of raising money or campaigning,” Cafero said. “I told them at the CEP that I don’t want this money that was put into my account. Their response was, ‘Sorry we awarded it already.’ How ridiculous is that?”
Still, Cafero spent $6,500 in public funds to win with 80 percent of the vote. He returned the rest.
Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, said even though he spent $19,000 in public financing last election for his uncontested race, he plans to wait to apply for the $85,000 he is entitled to this time around.
“I do have an opponent right now, but he hasn’t been doing anything. I am prepared to file if I need to, but I think I will wait and see what he does,” he said. “I want to be ready just in case.”
Proposals to cut grants for unopposed candidates have failed this year. Spallone said lawmakers didn’t want to change the program during the regular legislative session, while a federal appeals court was weighing its constitutionality. During the June 30 special session, a Republican amendment to eliminate the grants failed along party lines.
Spallone, speaking before the vote on the amendment, recommended lawmakers vote against the amendment because it would mean having to call the Senate back into special session — a difficult task considering lawmaker’s schedules in the middle of the summer.
“Time was of the essence. We were having a hard time getting people to come back,” he said, during an interview. “It just really wasn’t practical.”
But Cafero said the House knew the Senate would inevitably need to reconvene to override the governor’s promised veto of the overall bill.
“We could have done this already,” he said.
The non-partisan Office of Fiscal analysis estimated eliminating grants to uncontested candidates had the potential to save $300,000 this election year.
While not helpful to save money this year, Spallone said he guarantees “it will be revisted” in his committee next year.
Representatives Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers, Selim Noujaim, R-Waterbury, Anthony Hwang, R-Fairfield, and Janice Giegler R-Danbury all have no opponent for the upcoming election but collectively have received almost $31,000 in public grants.