The Citizens' Election Program was Connecticut's landmark effort, passed in 2006, to remove the taint of special-interest money from elections and to level the playing field for candidates through voluntary public financing of political campaigns. It has taken some direct hits to the chin in the last two years.
Fair play in politics is one of The Courant's editorial priorities in 2012. One way to further that goal is to help the wounded clean-elections program get back on its feet.
In 2010, the federal courts outlawed the supplemental grants given to CEP participants triggered by greater spending by wealthy, self-financing opponents. The courts also struck down the law's ban on political contributions by lobbyists -- a ban that sought to eliminate conflicts of interest and implied bribes.
Further, governors and legislators kept raiding the Clean Election Fund to help balance the budget -- but denying the fund of money needed to safely cover public financing grants in future elections.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the legislature this year dismembered the State Elections Enforcement Commission, cutting experienced staff and placing the administration and policing of the Citizens' Election Program in separate agencies, weakening the program.
In response to the court decisions, the supplemental grants were removed from the state's campaign financing law; the basic grant of public money to gubernatorial candidates was doubled to make participants more competitive and a low, $100 limit was placed on lobbyist contributions, thus limiting their influence.
But more needs to be done to level the campaign playing field:
*Candidates who take public money must be allowed to do additional small-donor fundraising to compete with wealthy, self-financing opponents and to combat unlimited independent expenditures.
*Enough money must be restored to the Clean Elections Fund to let the program work.
*Administration of the Citizens' Election Program should be transferred from the partisan secretary of the state's office back to a professional elections enforcement commission. That commission should be given the staff to do the job.
AG QUALIFICATIONS, FRANKING
Another area that must draw attention in 2012 involves qualifications to run for the office of attorney general. Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz's failed effort to qualify to seek the post in 2010 should cause the legislature to clarify the standards.
The law now requires that a person have at least 10 years' experience in the "active practice" of law in Connecticut to be eligible to serve as attorney general. In a lawsuit over Ms. Bysiewicz's qualifications, the state Supreme Court interpreted the term "active practice" to require that a candidate for attorney general have "at least some experience litigating cases in court." Bysiewicz didn't, and the court found her unqualified.
A bill put forward last year would have removed the "active practice" standard and simply require that an attorney general candidate have been registered as an attorney in Connecticut for 10 years. The bill didn't pass, nor should it have. The attorney general should be engaged in legal work, though not necessarily before the courts. A law professor or a corporate lawyer might make a good candidate.
One way to proceed would be to draft general standards for active practice of law, and then have candidates certified by the Judicial Selection Commission or another legal entity.
Finally, state legislators of both parties abuse their office by sending out legislative "updates" to constituents that frankly are nothing more than partisan campaign leaflets that cost taxpayers about $1 million a year. This shameful rip-off -- which gives incumbents a leg up on possible challengers at taxpayer expense -- ought to stop. It is decidedly not fair play.
This is the third in a series on what the state should do in 2012.
Correction published Wednesday, January 4, 2012 The Citizens' Election Program is still administered by the state Elections Enforcement Commission. The editorial "Fair Play in Politics, Part 2" on Jan. 3 incorrectly stated that the program was run by the secretary of the state's office.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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