Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is the poster child for the public financing of campaigns. Abiding the spending limits that come with public dollars, Malloy defeated wealthy, self-funding opponents in a Democratic primary and general election in 2010.
But looking ahead to re-election in 2014, Malloy wants to turn the state’s “clean election program” on its head by permitting publicly financed candidates for statewide office to accept unlimited cash from corporations, unions and other interests if they are being outspent.
Common Cause says Malloy is proposing to make a “mockery” of public financing. The governor says he is trying to save it.
His rationale: Citizens United and other Supreme Court decisions have opened the floodgates for corporations and Super PACs to influence elections, rendering obsolete the spending limits now attached to public financing.
His solution: Allow publicly financed candidates to raise and spend unlimited sums, but only if their opponents exceed the voluntary program’s spending limits, which are $6.25 million for a general-election campaign for governor.
“I hope that never happens,” Malloy said. “As you know, I am the first governor elected under a public financing system. I believe that’s the right system.”
Without the new rules, Malloy said, candidates might opt out of public financing in Connecticut, just as presidential candidates have turned away from the federal matching-funds program.
“I believe that the public financing system is the best system possible, and I am going to do everything possible I can to make sure that system remains intact,” Malloy said.
But is he really keeping the system intact? Or just ensuring he will enjoy the best of both worlds – public dollars and special interest money?
The system that advantaged him in 2010 as a former mayor with a limited fundraising base is less attractive to a sitting governor with considerable fundraising muscle.
“It is hard to even take this proposal seriously as a ‘reform,’ because it makes a mockery of the goal and intent of any campaign finance reform,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, vice president of state operations for Common Cause. “It opens the door to any corporation or individual who would like to hand a candidate for governor or other statewide office millions of dollars.”
Big money is the anathema to the program. To qualify for public financing, a candidate must raise seed money ranging from $5,000 for a state representative to $250,000 for governor. It must come from individuals in small amounts, $5 to $100.
Flynn was one of the advocates who worked with legislators to design the Citizens’ Election Program in 2005, when Gov. M. Jodi Rell reluctantly accepted public financing as one of many reforms prompted by the corruption scandal that toppled her predecessor, John G. Rowland.
The 2005 reforms also limited the influence of the political action committees controlled by legislative leaders and banned lobbyists and state contractors from contributing to state campaigns. (A 2010 federal court force decision forced the legislature to limit, not ban lobbyist contributions.)
Hobert Flynn says that Malloy’s proposal, which is part of a bill sought by legislative and party leaders, “opens the door to special interest money in a way that didn’t even exist pre-2005, when a corruption scandal led to the strong laws we now have on the books.”
The State Elections Enforcement Commission opposes allowing the unlimited supplemental funds.
“As I read this provision, it would allow a publicly funded candidate to collect virtually unlimited individual and PAC contributions, as well as accept contributions directly from special interest groups, business entities and labor unions in unlimited amounts,” said Michael Brandi, the executive director of the elections commission.
Malloy said his changes are meant to deter special interest that might see a publicly financed candidate as unable to respond to an influx of cash into an opponent’s campaign or independent expenditures for TV ads.
He suggested Common Cause was naïve in its objections.
“I think they are taking their eye off the ball,” Malloy said. “If there is no consequence to what’s happening elsewhere in the country coming to Connecticut, it will come to Connecticut, in which case the system that they are trying to defend will become non-existent.”
Malloy said he is defending public financing, not undermining it.
“I am trying to preserve a public system. I’m willing to live by those rules. But you can’t live by those rules in the state and then have other people come in and destroy the value of those rules,” Malloy said. “There’s got to be a consequence.”
There are potential legal problems with the proposed changes, especially those designed to provide supplemental funds triggered by an opponent’s spending. In an Arizona case, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the concept of “triggers.”
The Citizens’ Election Program originally had a trigger.
In 2010, the law provided qualifying candidates $1.25 million for primary and $3 million for a general election, with up to double those amounts depending on an opponent’s spending.
The spending in the Democratic primary by Ned Lamont triggered a maximum supplemental grant to Malloy, giving him $2.5 million for the primary, plus his $250,000 in private qualifying funds. Lamont spent about $9 million.
Then came the ruling in the Arizona case in the middle of the 2010 race. Over Rell’s veto, the Connecticut legislature responded by scrambling to double the general-election grant for governor to $6 million, giving Malloy a total of $8.7 million. Tom Foley, his Republican opponent, spent $12.7 million.
Hobert Flynn and Brandi are warning Malloy and legislators that the governor’s proposal could be seen as an illegal trigger, raising the prospect of legal challenges in the middle of the 2014 race.
House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said Malloy was hypocritical to demand access to unlimited special-interest funds after claiming the moral high ground in 2010 as a publicly financed candidate.
“He’s not being a hypocrite at all. He’d prefer to live within the public financing system,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, the governor’s senior adviser.
Malloy is not the only politician seeking changes. His proposal is part of a broader, 177-page bill chock full of provisions sought a range of officials, not all of whom are publicly known.
Two provisions provide protection to publicly financed state Senate and House candidates in case they are attacked by independent groups. Such attack would allow legislative political action committees to boost their spending on the candidates’ behalf.
Others allow more money to be pumped into campaigns by various entities.
The Democratic and Republican state central committees, for example, could spend $75,000 on a governor’s race, up from $50,000. They could also spend $20,000 on a state Senate race and $10,000 on a state House race, significant amounts for legislative contests.
Allowable contributions individuals to the party committees would double to $10,000; contributions from political actions committees also would double, to $15,000.
A more curious change – one that has nothing to do with defending against big money – would allow candidates to use excess public funds to pay bonuses of up to $1,000 to campaign volunteers. Under current law, publicly financed candidates must return excess funds to the state election’s fund.
“We’re not talking about a trivial sum of money, either,” Brandi said. “In the past two elections, participating candidates have returned more than $2 million to the fund. Diverting this money away from the public coffers is fiscally irresponsible and gives voters the wrong impression about participating candidates.”
Sen. Gayle S. Slossberg, D-Milford, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee, said the bill is the result of a call for possible changes in election law in response to the changing landscape in campaign finance.
The bill is certain to evolve. She declined to predict how.