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Disarm Campaign Finance Bomb

TICKING AWAY Provision in law could kill public financing if legislature doesn't fix it soon

Hartford Courant

January 23, 2010

Connecticut's landmark campaign finance law contains a ticking time bomb that threatens to blow it up, returning the state to a time when political corruption made it a national joke.

The law was meant to lessen the corrosive influence of special interests by providing public financing for political campaigns (and banning lobbyists and state contractors from contributing to candidates). So far, the Citizens Election Program has done just that, and become a national model. But tucked into the bill is a poison pill, a "reversion clause" that could kill the bill.

That would gladden the hearts of lobbyists and the state lawmakers who pine for the days when they could depend upon fat donations from special interests eager to buy influence.

It must not happen. This clause should be taken out of the law. With Thursday's U.S. Supreme Court decision ending the ban on corporate spending in candidate elections, publicly funded campaigns are needed now more than ever.

Quick Action Required

The details of the reversion clause are complicated, but bear with us: If a court finds fault with the program and limits or suspends it on or after April 15 during a general election year such as this one, or on or after the 45th day before a special election to fill a vacancy in the General Assembly, the legislature has a week to fix the problem.

Otherwise, the law is nullified for the year and we revert to the rules in effect before the public financing law was passed in 2005. If the court still prohibits or limits use of the fund in a second year, the law is dead and we revert to the pre-2005 rules permanently.

The reversion clause could come into play this year.

Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Stephan R. Underhill issued an injunction halting the program when he ruled that two components of the system regarding access to public funds for minor party candidates and extra funds to respond to attack ads are unconstitutional. Judge Underhill's injunction is stayed, however, while the case is being appealed to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

So, for now, the public finance system is still operative. But arguments in the case were heard earlier this month, and the decision could come any time.

If the appellate court upholds Underhill's decision in any part, the reversion clause kicks in. Either there's an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which doesn't necessarily retain the stay on the injunction, or the legislature has seven days to fix the parts of the law that were found unconstitutional.

Expecting the legislature to fix a law in seven days is highly unrealistic. And, lawmakers will not have until April 15 to worry about this. The clock would start ticking immediately because Gov. M. Jodi Rell has called a special election on March 2 to replace former state Rep. John Harkins, who was elected mayor of Stratford. We are already within 45 days of that election.

Ultimately, this legislative hand grenade is a litmus test for the Democrats who control the General Assembly. If House Speaker Chris Donovan and Senate President Don Williams support campaign finance reform, they'll push for repeal of the reversion clause right away, and then fix the genuine problems Judge Underhill identified. If they don't, they need only sit on their hands.

Uncertainty about the campaign finance law makes it difficult for candidates to plan campaigns. Do you opt for public financing on the chance you will lose it?

Lukewarm In The Senate

Mr. Donovan said he would support a bill to repeal the reversion clause, and he said there is support in the House for such a move. Senate support for repeal is lukewarm among some Democrats and Mr. Williams, who said he is proud of his role in passing the campaign finance reform law. He is confident that the Senate could fix the law in seven days if necessary. But he is reluctant to tinker with any portions of the law, saying to do so now would undermine the state's court appeal.

But that's not true, according to Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who favors repeal of the reversion clause. He said repeal "would have no effect at all" on the court case.

If Sen. Williams truly supports campaign finance reform, he will support efforts to ensure that this clause is taken out, once and for all.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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