Sen. McLachlan: Bill Drafted Largely in Secret Will Undo CT’s Campaign Finance Reforms [Capitol Watch]

June 4, 2013

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant’s ‘Capitol Watch’ blog

Independent political groups that violate Connecticut’s campaign disclosure laws could face bigger fines, but big-time donors would be able to give thousands more to parties and candidates under a bill approved by lawmakers early Tuesday morning.

The House of Representatives approved the measure in the wee hours of Saturday morning; the Senate sent the measure to Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy in a 21-14 vote along party lines just after midnight Tuesday.

At the culmination of the two hour debate, Senate President Donald Williams delivered an impassioned speech against money in politics. He said independent expenditures is just a nice phrase for “secret special interest attack money.”

“This bill unfortunately only goes a very short way…it’s the least we can do to fight for our democracy against a tidal wave of secret special interest money,’’ Williams said.

The bill underwent broad changes during the House debate late last week and Republican senators protested that neither they nor clean election advocates had had sufficient time to study the bill and figure out how it will affect future campaigns.

“I feel like this is something we’re rushing into and we don’t have to,” said Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington. “If I felt like I could stop this by pleading, I’d plead that we not do it today.”

Although some critics said the measure sets up an “arms race” between parties and independent groups, supporters of the measure, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, say it is a necessary response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows private groups to spend heavily to influence elections.

“In this post-Citizens United world, the landscape has changed dramatically,’’ said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford. “The citizens who are listening and the voters who are out there need to be able to judge the credibility of who is speaking.”

In the Citizens United ruling, the court ruled that limits on a group’s electoral spending are a limit on its political speech and therefore are unconstitutional. But it said disclosure requirements are still valid because that doesn’t prevent a group from making political speech. And the court has ruled that such requirements fulfill a “sufficiently important” government interest of keeping voters informed.

Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, was critical Monday of both the bill and the process that created it.

“The lion’s share of this bill came out of someone’s back pocket in a back room somewhere” after the committee process was over, he said.

Republican Senate Leader John McKinney said the state’s politicians do not have to fear big-spending private groups, pointing to self-funding campaigns–like that of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon—that ended in losses.“The people are pretty smart,” said McKinney, R-Fairfield .”They vote for the better candidate…not the candidate who spends the most money.”

The bill would also sharply increase the amounts state parties can spend. That could provide a big financial boost to Malloy and other candidates facing wealthy self-funders in 2014.

The legislation doubles the amount that a donor can give to state party committees from $5,000 to $10,000 and it doubles the amount that a person can give to a town committee from $1,000 to $2,000.

Current law allows people who violate campaign finance laws to be fined $5,000 and imprisoned for up to five years. The House measure would increase the fine to $25,000 but takes away the possibility of time behind bars.

Last year, Malloy vetoed a more controversial campaign finance package that had cleared the legislature, saying it wouldn’t have passed constitutional muster.

That measure had sought to force private groups to disclose their donors and it would have required corporate boards to vote before corporations could spend a certain amount on political campaigns.

The governor’s staff has said this bill strikes the right balance between reform and constitutional rights.