Counterattack at GOP effort to repeal public financing

Legislators and public-interest lobbyists rally Tuesday to save public financing of campaigns.

Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, says she is grateful that she never ran for state office in the days before Connecticut’s public financing system, when a major portion of fundraising took place in Hartford and was geared to collecting checks from lobbyists and their clients.

“Luckily for me, I never had that,” said Somers, who was elected to the Senate last year as a participant in the voluntary Citizens’ Election Program, which provides $95,000 general-election grants to qualifying candidates for state Senate.

But that didn’t keep her from voting with every Republican and a handful of Democrats in the Senate and House over the weekend for a budget that would eliminate the major electoral reform to arise from the corruption scandal that forced Gov. John G. Rowland from office.

“In a time when we are fiscally insolvent and facing a $5 billion deficit, does it send the right message to spend taxpayers’ dollars on campaigns?” Somers said.

The secretary of the state, Democratic legislators and representatives of Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, the Sierra Club, Environment Connecticut, and the Working Families Party gathered Tuesday to argue that the message sent by repeal would be worse.

“As voters from across the political spectrum become increasingly angry about the power of big money in our politics, the last thing state lawmakers should do is take us backwards,” said Carol Reimers, president of the League of Women Voters in Connecticut.

Their press conference was one in a series of events to publicize the impacts of a Republican minority budget unexpectedly passed Friday night by the Senate and Saturday morning by the House with little examination. Minority party budget proposals generally are seen by the majority as political documents, not fiscal plans for running a state.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy promises to veto the budget, which he says would add to the state’s unfunded pension liability, lead to out-year deficits and slash funding for higher education. Republicans, politically bolstered by the votes, say their budget is a solid framework for new negotiations with the governor and Democratic legislators.

One question this week is how much flexibility the GOP will show in negotiating changes. Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven could not be reached for comment.

“I’m not sure the Republicans knew what was in the Republican budget,” said Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, a former House Appropriations co-chair. “That’s why it’s so important to be speaking out as it become apparent what’s in the budget, such as the elimination of the clean elections program.”

It was clear during the debates that the Citizens’ Election Program, passed by a Democratic legislature in cooperation with Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell in 2005, was on the chopping block to save $23 million. Unknown is how deep is the desire to kill a program that has largely freed legislators of their predecessors’ reliance on lobbyist for fundraising.

“I’m sure this will be part of a negotiation going forward,” Somers said.

The effectiveness of the program has been debated since passage, although participation by candidates of both parties is overwhelming. It has been an undeniable success in turning legislators away from Hartford special interests to their districts for fundraising.

To obtain public financing, candidates must demonstrate grass-roots support by raising qualifying amounts — $5,000 for a House candidate and $15,000 for Senate — in amounts of no more than $100. Most of the money must come from their communities.

But it is rife with loopholes and exceptions that undermine the $100 limit. For example, contributions of up to $10,000 can go to the state parties, which can make unlimited expenditures in support of candidates participating in the voluntary program.

Senate Democrats have repeatedly refused to set a limit on the party spending, even when it became clear that candidates could bypass the contribution limit by directing friends and family to funnel money through a state party.

In campaigns for governor, the public financing is outweighed by independent expenditures.

But Merrill, a Democrat who voted for the program as a legislator in 2005, said today’s lawmakers should remember what inspired the reform.

“I’d just like to take you back there for a minute, because they say that people who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. I think this is an example that could be the case,” she said.

Rowland, a three-term governor, was forced to resign in 2004 and later pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges arising from bid-rigging and gifts he received from state contractors. Under the 2005 law, state contractors were barred from contributing to state campaigns.

Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, said public financing wasn’t just about elections: “It’s about governance. It’s about the way state government operates.”

Fleischmann noted that efforts to restrict or ban the sale of junk food in public schools repeatedly were thwarted by lobbyists.

“The industry, big food and big beverages, were opposed, and we could not seem to get forward movement on that, even though you could not find anyone in the advocacy community, in the scientific community, in the medical community who disagreed with us,” he said. “Those who disagreed with us were those making money off the sale of junk food and junk drinks to our young kids.”

A ban became law after the passage of public financing.

The Republican budget does not raise the $250 limit on contributions to non-participating candidates for the state legislature. But, perhaps recognizing that many politicians considering runs in 2018 now have exploratory committees, it raised from $375 to $1,000 the maximum contributions to those committees.

The GOP approach would increase the reliance of the rank-and-file on legislative leaders for campaign funds. It would double what leadership and caucus committees can contribute to candidates for the Senate and the House.

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