Best of 2019: Senate takes late-night jab at elections watchdog
Note: This story was originally published on June 5, 2019.
With barely 60 seconds of debate, the Senate voted unanimously late Tuesday night to transform an innocuous elections bill into a rebuke of the State Elections Enforcement Commission, imposing a term limit on the agency’s director and apparently setting aside fines it imposed on a former senator and his successor.
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, only told the Senate that the 48-page rewrite of a bill creating a commission to review elections laws addresses “some relatively minor glitches” in the Citizens’ Election Program, which provides public financing for legislative and statewide campaigns.
“It contains a number of changes agreed upon by all four caucuses to try to smooth out problems that have emerged and make the system work more effectively in future election cycles,” Looney said, giving the chamber a terse explanation of an amendment co-sponsored by him and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven.
Fasano was equally circumspect in his remarks on the floor: “I go with what Sen. Looney said. This is the power of bipartisanship right here.”
Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, the lawmaker who has been fighting a fine imposed on him in 2017 for a campaign finance violation in 2014, recused himself. He said he was under the impression the measure ended the case against him.
As the co-chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, normally would have presented the bill and the amendment to the Senate. She declined to comment on the rewrite. Instead, she said, “I didn’t take out the bill. I think that’s saying a good amount.”
Sampson said he did not seek the provision that appears to block the commission from collecting a $5,000 fine against him or a $2,000 fine against his predecessor, Joe Markley of Southington.
Asked by CT Mirror if the bill indeed ended the case against Sampson and Markley, Looney replied, “I think it does.”
The case against Sampson and Markley involves what the commission called “a bright line” prohibition against publicly financed candidates using their grants to promote or attack candidates in other races.
In 2014, when Sampson was seeking re-election to the House and Markley to the Senate, they frequently attacked Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who then was seeking re-election. In one joint mailing, they said, “Rob and Joe have consistently fought Governor Malloy’s reckless spending and voted against his budget which resulted in nearly $4 Billion in new and increased taxes for Connecticut residents.”
Sampson and Markley said their intent was to use Malloy to make a point about their politics, not his. But the commission ruled against them. They appealed in court on free-speech grounds, and the case is under review by the state Supreme Court, Sampson said.
With a provision lifting the prohibition on using public funds to attack candidates in other races, the Senate not only seemed to end the case against Sampson and Markley — but it opened the doors for Democrats to use public financing to connect their Republican opponents to Donald J. Trump in 2020, much as Markley and Sampson did with Malloy in 2014.
Among other things, the bill limits Michael Brandi, the executive director and general counsel, to two four-year terms. It leaves the power to hire and fire with the commission, though lawmakers considered making the appointment subject to confirmation by the General Assembly, Fasano said.
Brandi was not available for comment.
There is no similar term limit on the directors of two other watchdogs, the Office of State Ethics and the Freedom of Information Commission.
The lateness of the vote and brevity of the debate Tuesday are certain to limit public awareness of the legislation before the House of Representatives takes it up today. The Senate acted after concluding a long debate over the state budget. The 2019 session ends tonight at midnight.
The State Elections Enforcement Commission is the watchdog agency that most often comes into conflict with elected officials, enforcing campaign finance and elections laws — and reviewing candidates’ applications for public financing grants.
Candidates complained in 2018 that the commission was slow to review and act on applications for public financing. The legislation has provisions that seemed design to prod the commission to act more quickly.
To be awarded public financing, candidates must demonstrate public support by meeting fundraising thresholds ranging from $5,000 for a state House race to $250,000 for governor. The public grants for a general election range from $25,000 for a House contest to more than $6 million for governor.
The qualifying contributions could be no more than $250 for a legislative candidate or $100 for a statewide candidate. Candidates participating in the voluntary program agree to strict spending limits, but the legislature has opened the door to outside spending.
In 2013, the legislature passed a law allowing the state parties to make unlimited expenditures on Connecticut legislative races and permitting a greater degree of coordination between political candidates and Super PACs that may later make independent expenditures on their behalf. There had been a limit of $10,000.
In 2016, the legislature limited the commission’s ability to investigate, imposing a one-year limit on investigations. The limit came after the legislature had cut its staff by about 40 percent.
Correction: As originally posted, the story reported the vote as 35-0, with one abstention. In addition to Sampson’s recusal, Sen. Matt Lesser was out of the chamber and missed the vote.
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