Reforming Campaign Finance Reform

August 4, 2010

Last week, the General Assembly met in Special Session to fix part of the state’s campaign finance laws that were ruled unconstitutional by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. The laws were part of a comprehensive package of election reforms put into place by the legislature in 2005 that applied to the campaigns for the office of Governor, all Constitutional Officers, and member of the General Assembly. Included in these reforms was the creation of the Citizen’s Election Program (CEP), which opened the door for the public financing of campaigns in Connecticut.

In addition to the public financing aspect, the CEP also included the banning of lobbyist and contractor contributions, and ad books, and it limited the proliferation of Political Action Committees (PAC’s).

With the CEP up and running in 2008, the CEP awarded approximately $9 million to the 73% of candidates running for the General Assembly who participated in the program.

With the state facing a gubernatorial election this year, as well as elections for all of the state’s Constitutional Offices and members of the General Assembly, the State Elections Enforcement Commission has projected the cost to the CEP for the 2010 elections to be approximately $38 to $48 million. Because of the federal court’s decision, the entire program had been left in question.

The court found that the CEP put “minor” party candidates at a severe disadvantage, something that Republicans pointed out when the law was crafted in 2005. In a major blow to the program, the court also ruled that the provisions which limited independent expenditures, such as the ban on lobbyist contributions were a violation of the First Amendment. Problematic, because for years we have been told – from people of all political persuasions – that removing special interest money from the process is the key to so-called “clean elections.”

While we have known about the court’s decision for over a year, calls for an immediate fix to the program during this year’s regular legislative session (before the start of the campaign season) fell upon deaf ears by those in the majority party. With the elections for all major offices already underway, the General Assembly met last week in Special Session to finally address the constitutionality issues.

The result? Despite attempts by Republicans to keep funding for the public financing portion at their current levels, the legislature voted to ADD $6 million into the fund for the current gubernatorial campaign. What’s curious about this is the fact that the court did not even address increasing the amount of funding for participating gubernatorial candidates. In fact, those who did participate knew exactly how much they would receive when they decided to join the program for this year’s election. With the state facing a substantial budget deficit adding $6 million to the campaign fund makes this allocation even more troublesome.

As for the constitutionality issues, the bill now reintroduces lobbyist money into legislative campaigns for this year! Republicans offered an amendment that would reduce the influence lobbyists have on the clean elections system by prohibiting candidates who receive taxpayer money from taking lobbyist contributions. This too was rejected by the majority. A third measure offered would have immediately banned lobbyists from soliciting their clients. That was defeated as well, making them eligible to do so for this election cycle and up until January 1, 2011.

The good news is that following the vote Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed the bill. The bad news is that the majority is threatening to override and want to do it as soon as possible with a rare sense of urgency. It makes you wonder.