HARTFORD— — Independent political groups that violate Connecticut's campaign disclosure laws could face bigger fines, but big-time donors would be able to give thousands more to parties and candidates under a bill approved by the Senate early Tuesday.
The House of Representatives approved the measure Saturday morning; the Senate sent the measure to Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy in a 21-14 vote along party lines just after midnight Tuesday.
"We need to know who's spending money in our elections and we need to be able to counter that spending,'' said Sen. Anthony Musto, a Democrat from Bridgeport who is co-chairman of the legislature's government administration and elections committee.
"The people of the state of Connecticut have the right to know who is trying to influence them one way or the other."
Although some critics said the measure sets up an "arms race" between parties and independent groups, supporters of the measure, including Malloy, say it is a necessary response to the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which allows private groups to spend heavily to influence elections.
"In this post-Citizens United world, the landscape has changed dramatically,'' said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford. "The citizens who are listening and the voters who are out there need to be able to judge the credibility of who is speaking."
In the Citizens United ruling, the court ruled that limits on a group's electoral spending are a limit on its political speech and therefore are unconstitutional. But it said disclosure requirements are still valid because that doesn't prevent a group from making political speech. And the court has ruled that such requirements fulfill a "sufficiently important" government interest of keeping voters informed.
But Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, was critical Monday of both the bill and the process that created it.
"The lion's share of this bill came out of someone's back pocket in a back room somewhere" after the committee process was over, he said.
The bill underwent broad changes during the House debate late last week and Republican senators protested that neither they nor clean election advocates had had sufficient time to study the bill and figure out how it will affect future campaigns.
"I feel like this is something we're rushing into and we don't have to," said Sen. Ed Markley, R-Southington. "If I felt like I could stop this by pleading, I'd plead that we not do it today."
And Republican Senate Leader John McKinney said the state's politicians do not have to fear big-spending private groups, pointing to self-funding campaigns — like that of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon — that ended in losses.
"The people are pretty smart," said McKinney, R-Fairfield. "They vote for the better candidate … not the candidate who spends the most money."
The bill would also sharply increase the amounts state parties can spend. That could provide a big financial boost to Malloy and other candidates facing wealthy self-funders in 2014.
The legislation doubles the amount that a donor can give to state party committees from $5,000 to $10,000 and it doubles the amount that a person can give to a town committee from $1,000 to $2,000.
Current law allows people who violate campaign finance laws to be fined $5,000 and imprisoned for up to five years. The House measure would increase the fine to $25,000 but takes away the possibility of time behind bars.
Last year, Malloy vetoed a more controversial campaign finance package that had cleared the legislature, saying it wouldn't have passed constitutional muster.
That measure had sought to force private groups to disclose their donors and it would have required corporate boards to vote before corporations could spend a certain amount on political campaigns.
The governor's staff has said this bill strikes the right balance between reform and constitutional rights.
Tweaks To Newtown Guns Law
Lawmakers in both chambers approved legislation Monday that they said makes minor changes to the firearms legislation passed two months ago in reaction to the Newtown school massacre.
The fix bill allows police officers, military personnel and certain other people with dangerous jobs, like armored car drivers, to use banned guns and ammunition magazines.
And people who purchased but had not received certain guns before the Newtown bill was signed can still receive and possess those guns. House Republican Leader Larry Cafero said the legislature hadn't intended to turn law-abiding gun owners into "instant criminals" when it passed the Newtown bill.
Several Republicans said they supported the fix bill even though they have voted against the original legislation. They said lawmakers had rushed to pass a bill in the wake of the deadly shooting and had caused confusion among gun owners about firearms they owned before Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy signed the Newtown bill on April 5.
The fix measure was approved 33-1 in the Senate and the House by a vote of 131-15. It now goes to Malloy, who is expected to sign it.
GMO Food Labeling
As expected, the state House of Representatives on Monday gave final approval to a bill requiring foods with genetically modified ingredients to carry labels.
The measure, which cleared the chamber by a vote of 134 to 3 after about 5 minutes of debate, contains several triggers designed to mute the potential cost of labeling to the manufacturers: For the legislation to take effect four states — including those bordering Connecticut — must pass a similar bill. In addition, any combination of northeastern states (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania or New Jersey), with an aggregate population of at least 20 million people, must approve labeling legislation.
Immediately after the vote, cheers could be heard outside the Hall of the House from advocates who had been pushing the labeling requirement.
It now heads to the desk of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who is expected to sign it.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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