STATE LAW WOULD HAVE TO BE MADE CONSTITUTIONAL IF APPEAL FAILS
February 23, 2010
A federal appeals court ruling could send the state scrambling for a quick fix if the legislature fails to make Connecticut's campaign finance reform law constitutional now, lawmakers were warned Monday.
Supporters at a public hearing stood behind the citizens election program, urging legislators to shore up the reforms passed in 2005.
Opponents, however, are saying that the law never should have been passed in the first place. The state should not spend nearly $43 million on political campaigns, especially when it is facing a budget deficit, they say.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell cites campaign finance reform as one of her greatest accomplishments as governor. Advocates call Connecticut's reform law the most strict and sweeping in the country. It is now in jeopardy.
Last fall, a judge for the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law's voluntary public financing provision would put minor-party candidates at an unconstitutional disadvantage against better-financed major-party candidates. The state appealed the decision.
There is a need to modify the law soon - before the appeals court rules, because the state will only have seven days to act once a decision is made, said Beth Rotman, director of the citizens' election program. After the weeklong window, she said, political candidates would be subject to old campaign finance laws.
Prior to 2005, candidates were allowed to collect money from lobbyists, special-interest groups and state contractors. They no longer can.
"The most dangerous thing this body can do is sit and wait," Rotman said. She testified at Monday's six-hour hearing in support of two bills, which she says will make Connecticut's campaign finance law constitutional.
The governor's proposal would change the amount of money a candidate receives through the citizens' election program and eliminate the requirements minor-party and petitioning candidates have to meet to qualify for grants. The changes would apply to those running in state races in 2014.
The second bill - a government administration and elections committee proposal - would also change the amount of money received through the program. However, it would not eliminate qualification requirements for minor-party and petitioning candidates. Instead, it would lower the thresholds.
The amount of money minor-party and petitioning candidates currently receive from the citizens' election program depends on the number of petition signatures, or the party's success in the last election. For example, if a candidate collects signatures equal to 10 percent of the total votes cast in the last election, they get one-third the total grant awarded to a major-party candidate. Fifteen percent gets a candidate two-thirds the total grant, and a total grant is awarded to a candidate who hits 20 percent. The committee bill would make the thresholds 3 percent, 4 percent and 5 percent.
The bill would prohibit participants in the election fund from accepting independent expenditures from third parties like unions. To keep races competitive, the committee bill would allow candidates who anticipate a high-spending race against someone who is not receiving public financing to raise additional money.
Christine Horrigan, government director for the Connecticut League of Women Voters, spoke favorably of the citizens' election program and said residents support public financing.
State Republican Party Chairman Chris Healy, opposed the bills. Healy said the program uses tax dollars to promote personal agendas and violates the right to free speech.
Andrew Schneider, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said both bills make great strides but still fall short. Schneider said he remained concerned that lobbyists and contractors could face prison time for contributing to campaigns. "Campaign finance reform does not have to be at odds with the First Amendment," he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at