Greenwich legislators decry new campaign finance laws [Greenwich Post]

July 12, 2013

State Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36th) discusses the legislative session with the League of Women Voters. (Credit: Ken Borsuk, Greenwich Post

Article as it appeared in the Greenwich Post on July 12, 2013

By Ken Borsuk

Before they had the chance to begin their summer vacation outside of Hartford, there was still a very important status report for Greenwich’s legislative delegation to give.

Last month, State Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36th) and State Reps. Livvy Floren (R-149th), Stephen Walko (R-150th) and Fred Camillo (R-151st) appeared before members of the League of Women Voters at its annual summer legislative lunch and talked about the recently ended session. And it was a change in campaign finance and disclosure laws in Public Act 13-180 that concerned both the legislators and the members of the league.

Ms. Floren, a longtime member of the legislature’s Government Affairs and Elections Committee before stepping down before this session, said she was deeply disappointed to see this happen and called it “the rending of the fabric of good government.”

“Under the guise of tweaking campaign finance reform and the citizen’s election program legislation enacted in 2005, behind closed doors and, with little or no public input, a very few people in power created an omnibus government administration and elections bill that brought back ad books, increased contribution amounts, enlarged the donor base yet again with lobbyists and contractors, circumvented transparency and disclosure and condoned negative advertising,” Ms. Floren said. “As you might guess, I thought that was pretty appalling.”

Ms. Floren noted the opposition to this from good government groups like the league and said it “made a mockery” of work that had been for ethics and campaign finance reform in the state and pledged to work to try and rectify it during the next session.

“This is bad policy and bad law,” Mr. Frantz said. “It doesn’t do anything for democracy.”

League member Jara Burnett called the law “a disaster” and wanted to know what could be done to fight it. Ms. Floren urged the members of the league to keep up the pressure in writing to legislators about it and speculated that after the gubernatorial race in 2014 “a new light may just come forward” and people will want stricter campaign finance rules again.

The comments made at the June 18 luncheon were before Gov. Dannel Malloy signed the bill, though they said they assumed he would when they spoke. Ms. Floren said the legislation came straight from the governor’s office. And when he signed it last month, days after the luncheon, Mr. Malloy said this was done as a response to what he felt was a “tragic decision” from the U.S. Supreme Court in the Citizens United case, which allowed for more anonymous money into campaign spending. He claimed that, opposite of what Greenwich’s delegation felt, this would increase transparency.

“The Citizens United decision reversed years of campaign finance reforms and allowed unlimited private money into politics, empowering the wealthy few at the expense of our democracy,” Mr. Malloy said in a press release on June 19. “Faced with that tragic decision, which is now the law of the land, we can at least shine a light on the sources of private money in politics. The bill I’m signing today requires a level of disclosure that few if any other states require. No bill is perfect. But this bill makes Connecticut a national leader in requiring disclosure and transparency.”

Mr. Walko discussed the ongoing work of the municipal opportunities and regional efficiencies (MORE) commission. He said the aim is to find efficiencies in government and has called for regionalizing certain aspects. But that has given rise to concerns about county forms of government, an idea that is far from universally supported in the state. It has also called for items like regionalized school calendars that have resulted in complaints from local boards of education in Connecticut who want the power to determine that on their own.

“Time will tell if this is going to be a good thing, particularly for southwestern Connecticut,” Mr. Walko said. “We tend to be very efficient in the way we handle things now… It’s going to be an interesting dialogue as we move forward with this and whether or not we’re actually inching closer to county government or whether we’re actually finding efficiencies in how we handle some of our large geographic areas.”

It was a challenging session for Mr. Camillo as he recovered from illness and he thanked his colleagues on both sides of the aisle for their help. Because of that help he pointed to three of his bills that were passed, new distracted driver regulations that can punish people repeatedly caught texting while driving by having their insurance rates go up, increased power for fire police patrols to safely direct traffic, and an animal cruelty bill known as Buddy’s Law, which was signed by Mr. Malloy last week that protects animals from being killed without valid reasons.

Mr. Camillo did call the new state budget “disappointing” because of the money taken out of the transportation fund to pay expenses, money which he said needs to be used solely for the purpose for which it was raised, which is to pay for infrastructure and safe roads and bridges.

“Diverting money from specific targeted areas is costly down the road,” Mr. Camillo said.

Mr. Frantz also criticized the “loosey-goosey” accounting practices in Hartford, saying a “trick was pulled” to keep Connecticut from going over the spending cap even though the budget is 10% bigger than last year, losing what he felt was a critical form of fiscal responsibility.

“In the corporate world if you did these kind of accounting tricks you’d be in jail with some other high profile people, but in the state of Connecticut you can get away with it,” Mr. Frantz said.

The impact of the Dec. 14 shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School was felt as the first months of the legislative session were dominated by the creation and passage of strict new gun control measures. The package had support from all of Greenwich’s legislators and Ms. Floren praised the bipartisan fashion in which the measures were crafted and said it was “heartening to see leadership totally committed to doing something and doing it together for all the people in the state.”

However, the mood of the tragedy and the work that came from it had a real impact on legislative business this session, according to Mr. Frantz.

“Livvy, Fred, Steve and I know some legislators who have been there for almost 30 years and they told us this was, by far and away, the most difficult, vitriolic, frustrating and emotional session they have had in their careers in Hartford,” Mr. Frantz said. “We tend to forget about the negative and focus on the positive, but there was a real legislative slog the first month and a half with Sandy Hook weighing on our heads, and many of us going to the school to see what we could do, not just as legislators, but as people who can help in other ways.”

He added, “The positive I can say about that is that you see the best in mankind. These teachers are angels and saints and these kids, many of whom lost their siblings, should be a wreck right now but are doing fine. They’re going to be just fine. But it was very difficult to get through the session and I, for one, am glad to have it over with.”

Mr. Frantz did vote for the gun control package, but expressed disappointment there was not enough concentration on mental health help. He said guns are “not the only mechanism or device which a bad person can use to inflict damage” and he said he wanted to see more resources pushed toward mental health. Mr. Frantz said the bill didn’t go far enough with that, but “it’s a good start.”

There were positives to report, too. Ms. Floren talked about her happiness to see Mr. Malloy’s push for investment in bioscience and UConn Next Generation go through. Mr. Malloy has said that he expects this investment to allow for Connecticut to become a source of innovation in bioscience, engineering, digital media and technology and that it will not only create jobs, it will, through investment in UConn, ensure people are graduating with the training and knowledge needed for those jobs.

“Connecticut residents want their state government to create jobs, provide excellent education and be careful and thoughtful stewards of tax dollars,” Ms. Floren said. “A major investment in our flagship University of Connecticut accomplishes these goals.”

Mr. Camillo said he was very happy to see this investment continue.

“We always complain here that the rest of the state relies on Fairfield County as the engine for growth so this will get away from the financial sector into something else,” Mr. Camillo said. “We have to diversify going forward. I think this is a good thing. It’s costly but you have to spend money to make money and I think this is a good direction we’re going in.”

This session was the first one in Hartford for Mr. Walko, who was elected last November to succeed former State Rep. Lile Gibbons. He talked about the excitement of the atmosphere in the final weeks of the session when legislation comes up for a vote and of how inspiring it was to work in the capital. But he also discussed how very difficult it can be.

“The challenge we’re facing as a government is how can we be truly representative of our constituents,” Mr. Walko said. “I think the culture in Hartford should change. It should change to try and bring more representatives of our constituencies into the legislature. What I mean by that is right now, in order for me to understand educational issues, for instance, we have lobbyists, and the lobbyists do a very good job at educating legislators about what the certain issue of the day is. But under our current system it’s virtually impossible for a current teacher or administrator to be in the legislature. Why? It’s time consuming.”

Because of that, Mr. Walko said they are left with a very homogeneous form of government where only certain individuals have the ability to serve as a legislator. He said there have to be continued discussions about having a more representative government.

“Would you rather have the teacher in the room or the lobbyist outside the room?” Mr. Walko said. “You can ask that about any occupation.”