House Gives Bipartisan Approval To Campaign Finance Bill; Senate Dems ‘Have Concerns’ [Courant]

June 2, 2015

Hartford Courant

he state House of Representatives has approved legislation that overhauls Connecticut’s public financing system by cutting the size of candidates’ grants and by limiting wealthy donors’ ability to funnel money into campaigns.

The Republican proposal, introduced as an amendment that substituted a different bill, cleared the Democrat-controlled House late Thursday in a bipartisan vote of 134-12. It now goes to the state Senate, where one lawmaker is a direct target of the legislation.

Key provisions of the bill prevent state parties from spending unlimited amounts of money on publicly funded campaigns, a response to Democrats’ spending hundreds of thousands last year to support Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and state Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr.

By endorsing the Republican proposal, House Democrats put pressure on Senate Democrats and left the future of the legislation in the hands of their fellow party members, who control the upper chamber.

“Obviously three chambers believe there’s a problem with our system,” said state Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano at a state Capitol press conference Friday. Fasano said Senate Democrats should “recognize that three-quarters of our General Assembly believe that we need to do something to fix a broken system, and they should just do it.”

Republicans hosted the press conference hours after the state Democratic Party was served a subpoena by the State Elections Enforcement Commission in an investigation of allegations that Democrats illegally used state contractors’ contributions to a federal account to support Malloy’s campaign.

The bill that passed the house Thursday would prohibit state parties from using federal accounts to support publicly funded campaigns, and would require any candidate who benefits from a federal account expenditure to repay the state for the full amount of his or her public grant.

“We have concerns with the bill as it’s drafted,” said Adam Joseph, a spokesman for Senate Democrats.

The bill would not stop the flow of outside money from Super PACs because that spending is protected by a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down limits on independent expenditures by outside groups. In the governor’s race last year, outside spending topped $15 million, and came from both sides of the aisle. Joseph said the bill that cleared the House failed to include provisions that would require these outside groups to disclose more about their funding sources. When asked about the provisions in the bill, Joseph said: “We haven’t caucused the bill yet. We have concerns.”

The bill caps the amount state parties can spend on behalf of candidates who accept public financing. Last year, both Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Republican challenger Tom Foley received public funding through the state’s Citizen Election Program, which offers campaign grants to candidates who raise a certain amount through small donations. Participating candidates are supposed to limit their campaign spending to what they receive through the program, but state parties and other political action committees can make “organizational expenditures” to benefit candidates.

Campaign filings reveal that the state Democratic Party spent $765,979.33 on Malloy’s behalf last year — on advertising, direct mailings, phone banking, and other campaign services. The state Republican Party did not report any organizational expenditures on behalf of Foley. The bill would prohibit state parties from spending more than $250,000 on a gubernatorial candidate who has accepted public funding.

The new cap on how much state parties can spend on behalf of candidates running for governor is less than what the state Democratic Party spent last year to support now-state Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr. in his first run for public office. Filings show that the party spent $262,577.87 to support Kennedy’s publicly funded campaign last year. The bill imposes a $10,000 limit on what state parties can spend on Senate candidates in the Citizens Election Program. This year alone, the state Democratic Party has spent $24,238 on Kennedy — more twice what would be allowed if the bill becomes law.

Kennedy’s opponent last year, Bruce Wilson Jr. of Madison, accused the Kennedy family of injecting some of their fortune into the former president’s nephew’s campaign. Kennedy and his wife, KiKi Kennedy, each donated the maximum of $10,000 to the state party — as did Kennedy’s brother Patrick Kennedy. Several employees of Kennedy’s New York-based health care consulting firm made contributions as well.

The bill also restricts state parties’ ability to fundraise through contributions from wealthy donors, by putting back into place limits on individual contributions that were doubled under a law Malloy signed in 2013. The bill reduces the $10,000 limit to $5,000, sharply cutting the amount that wealthy donors — who often contribute as part of a larger group with a shared stake in a candidate’s success — could pour into campaign coffers.

The grants that candidates receive through the Citizens Election Program would be cut by 25 percent under the bill. Candidates for governor, for example, would receive $4.8 million, rather than $6.5 million, to run their campaigns. The state Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates that the state would reap $2.8 million in savings in fiscal year 2017 as a result of the grant reductions.

The state could also realize savings through a provision that prohibits a candidate who runs uncontested from receiving public funding. Under current law, candidates can receive a grant even if they do not have an opponent.

The House sent the proposal to the Senate after less than 30 minutes of debate Thursday.

Mark Bergman, a spokesman for Malloy, said, “If the legislation passes, we will review it to make sure it legally complies with recent federal and state campaign finance court decisions.”