Few trial balloons at the State Capitol have deflated as quickly as a proposal this week by Democratic legislative leaders to save $11.7 million by suspending Connecticut’s groundbreaking system of publicly financed campaigns.
The administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the Connecticut Democratic Party distanced themselves from the proposed budget cut in messages delivered to outraged constituency groups. Young legislators publicly opposed their leaders.
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, a former House Democratic leader, publicly complained that an end to public financing would be a blow to clean elections and raise barriers to the candidacies of women, minorities, the young and other political outsiders.
“We are an example for other states and even Congress,” said Merrill, the state’s chief elections officer. “We must not be the first state to legislatively suspend this program. To do so would no doubt endanger the future of the program.”
The array of opposition means the cut — first suggested by Senate Democrats, but signed off on by House Democratic leaders — is unlikely to find its way into a deficit-mitigation package now being negotiated by the administration and the legislature’s Democratic majorities and Republican minorities.
Update: Democrats in both chambers declared campaign finance cut dead.
But the proposal by majority Democrats, who have watched the GOP grow more competitive in legislative elections, raises a broader question: Was it intended as a negotiating ploy to shape the budget, or does it reflect a deeper desire to tilt campaign-finance rules in favor of protecting incumbents?
In either case, the proposal struck campaign-finance reform advocates as particularly tone deaf in a presidential campaign season dominated by outsiders Donald Trump and Ben Carson in the GOP race and steady criticism of the influence of corporate money by the leading Democrats, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
“The politics, as well as the policy, is wrong,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, a senior vice president of Common Cause. “I don’t think they understand how the world has changed since the Citizens’ Election Program was created.”
Common Cause, the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, ConnPIRG and the Working Families Party are expected to press that point Thursday afternoon in a press conference in Hartford.
On Friday, House Democrats will have the opportunity to discuss the suspension of campaign financing and other budget savings in a caucus with their leaders, House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey of Hamden and House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz of Berlin.
Legislators are trying to close a projected deficit of $254 million in the current fiscal year, with a forecast of sharply escalating shortfalls in the following two years unless expenses are restricted or faltering tax receipts rebound.
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said senators suggested the suspension of public financing in the face of opposition to a retirement-incentive plan that would produce some quick savings, albeit at the cost of worsening the state’s underfunded pension system.
Aresimowicz was not ready Wednesday night to declare the campaign finance proposal dead, but he made clear he had little enthusiasm for the idea, offering a tepid rationale for its inclusion in the Democratic mitigation proposal: “I thought it was a subject that should at least be put on the table.”
He was sympathetic to the young members of his caucus and the Senate who already have signed a letter of protest.
“I have concerns with taking away a program that has established itself as one of the landmark campaign finance programs in the country that has brought clean elections to the citizens of the state,” Aresimowicz said.
Tom Swan, executive director of CCAG, said it was especially galling to see Democratic leaders willing to end a program that has provided political newcomers a level playing field for raising money, while they also are proposing cutting business taxes.
“For them to try to stack the deck by eliminating clean elections to fund corporate loopholes is one of the worst public policy proposals from a political perspective I can think of,” said Swan, who worked to elect political outsiders, Sens. Ed Gomes and Marilyn Moore, Democrats of Bridgeport.
Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, one of the young legislators opposed to ending public financing, said the program has broken incumbents’ reliance on lobbyists and their clients for campaign funds and allowed challengers to compete.
“It’s dramatically changed how the Capitol functions and who is elected to serve in the House and Senate,” Flexer said. “I say it all the time: I never would have run in the first place if it wasn’t for this system. It puts so much power in the hands of your constituents.”
Public financing in Connecticut rose from a bipartisan coalition assembled in reaction to the resignation in July 2004 of Republican Gov. John G. Rowland as he faced impeachment over evidence of bid-rigging and his acceptance of favors from state contractors.
His successor, M. Jodi Rell, proposed bans on contributions from state contractors and lobbyists, but she eventually agreed to broader reforms, including the voluntary Citizen Election Program, which imposed strict limits on contributions and spending in return for public campaign grants that ranged in 2014 from nearly $28,000 for a House candidate to more than $6 million for a gubernatorial campaign.
The reforms pushed incumbents and challengers to look away from the Hartford lobbying establishment to their districts. To obtain public financing, candidates must collect qualifying contributions of between $5 and $100 – and much of the money must come from towns in their districts.
“I think people generally believe this program has been historic. We have largely taken money out of politics,” said Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford.
The system was used by Malloy and his Republican opponent, Tom Foley, and nearly 75 percent of legislative candidates in 2014.
The program, however, has a major loophole. In 2013, Senate Democrats won passage of a provision that allows the state parties to make unlimited expenditures in support of legislative candidates. Party expenditures on legislative races had been capped at $10,000.
Flexer said the changes, which Senate Democrats say were a defense against the unlimited independent expenditures Super PACs can make, were unfortunate, but the program still was worthwhile for minimizing the influence of lobbyists and their clients.
Until the campaign reforms of 2005, lobbyists were a fundraising adjunct of the House and Senate caucuses, a role that historically gave representatives of major interest groups a voice in which bills leaders called for a vote.
If public financing is suspended, legislators almost certainly would take other steps to rebuild the old fundraising infrastructure.
Looney, the Senate leader, acknowledged as much in an interview with The Mirror, saying the end or suspension of public financing would be accompanied by other unspecified changes geared at easing fundraising.
Citizens’ Election Program at a glance
To obtain public financing, a major-party candidate must meet two tests: Qualify for the ballot and demonstrate broad public support by raising a threshold amount in small-dollar contributions, anywhere between $5 and $100.
For a statewide candidate, 90 percent of the qualifying money must be raised in Connecticut. Legislative candidates have slightly different district-related standards to meet: 150 local contributions in a House race, 300 in a Senate contest.
Principals of state contractors or prospective contractors cannot make qualifying contributions. Neither can children under age 12. (Yes, they can exercise their First Amendment right to write a check at 12, even if they can’t vote until 18.)
|Other statewide officers||$75,000|
|Office||Primary grant||General election grant|
|*Other State Offices||$406,275||$812,550|
|State Senate||$38,990 or $83,550**||$93,690|
|State House||$11,140 or $27,850**||$27,850|
* Those offices are lieutenant governor, secretary of the state, comptroller, treasurer and attorney general. Candidates for lieutenant governor can only get a grant for a primary. In the general election, one grant goes to the ticket of governor and lieutenant governor.
** The larger amount goes to legislative candidates in districts dominated by one party. The theory is the primary is tantamount to the election in those districts.