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New Campaign Finance Rules Meant Rolling Back Some Post-Rowland Reforms

By JENNY WILSON

June 19, 2013

Revisions to campaign finance law, signed by the governor Wednesday, add Connecticut to a list of states raising limits on political contributions in response to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down bans on outside spending.

But in changing the law, Democratic legislators this session had to reverse past commitments to limit money in politics, including limits hailed when enacted in the aftermath of the scandal that forced Gov. John Rowland out of office.

The changes remove a cap on how much political parties in Connecticut can spend on publicly financed candidates and double the amount donors may contribute to party committees.

Democrats described the revisions as a necessary response to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, when the court ruled that political spending by corporations is protected speech under the First Amendment. Because outside spending cannot be limited, Democrats argued, eliminating limits on state party expenditures and allowing wealthier donors to make larger contributions is necessary to counter the money against them.

"It is fighting fire with fire," Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said after the General Assembly gave final legislative approval to the measure.

He defended his decision to sign the bill by pointing to provisions that expand what groups must disclose about who is funding campaign advertisements, aimed at tracking the source of big money in politics. In a statement released Wednesday, Malloy said: "The people of Connecticut have a right to know who's paying to sway public opinion."

A Greenwich billionaire last fall spent millions to sway the public, and a handful of Democrats running for statewide office were among his targets. Thomas Peterffy, a Hungarian immigrant and vehement critic of socialism, funded attacks in the final weeks of the campaign season through a SuperPAC called Voters For Good Government Inc.

State Sens. Steve Cassano, Catherine Osten, Andrew Maynard along with Senate President Don Williams won their races despite the influx of last-minute spending against them by Voters for Good Government. Vickie Nardello, an 18-year-incumbent running for re-election in the House of Representatives, did not.

But Nardello said recently that she fears the legislature's response will fuel an arms race in campaign spending, with new opportunities for outside money to influence political campaigns.

"It's like an arms race and that concerns me," she said. "I know there wasn't a lot of time here but I would like to look at other methods of addressing this without necessarily letting each group escalate now we're going to fight this with a great deal of money."

The new legislation removes existing limits on how much state parties can spend to support candidates participating in Connecticut's public financing system, the Citizens' Election Program. Those limits were previously set at $10,000 for Senate races and $3,500 for House of Representatives races. Donor contribution limits to state and town party committees, previously set at $5,000 and $1,000, were raised to $10,000 and $2,000, respectively.

Early last fall state Democrats stood by clean election advocates to call on Congress to overturn Citizens United. A majority of state lawmakers, all Democrats, signed a letter asking for a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling.

"Money screams in an election," said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, a leader of that initiative. "It screams so loudly that it drowns out the voice of the people." But Slossberg this month voted with a majority of state lawmakers, all Democrats, to raise contribution limits.

Sen. Anthony Musto, D-Bridgeport, who helped draft the bill, said his decision resulted from a "choice between allowing local folks to contribute more money, which may be a bad thing, or allowing the races to be dominated by outside money, which is a worse thing."

Former Gov. Jodi Rell, who succeeded Rowland and championed sweeping campaign finance reformsincluded the establishment of Connecticut's public-financing system, recently offered harsh criticism to Democrats who rolled back those reforms.

"After a dark period in our state's history, Connecticut became a role model for the nation with our campaign finance reform," she said, in a statement released to the media after the state legislature approved the changes this year. "How sad that the Democrat governor, Democrat legislators and the Democrat Party are so greedy for campaign cash that they would willingly destroy what we so proudly enacted just a few short years ago."

Wave Of State Action

Connecticut's response to Citizens United mirrors action in statehouses across the country. Illinois lawmakers in 2009, after impeaching a governor facing federal corruption charges, responded to the scandal by enacting limits on campaign contributions. Last summer, Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn signed a measure to eliminate those contribution limits in races when outside spending exceeds a certain level.

State legislatures in Minnesota, Maryland, Florida, and Arizona in the past six months have also raised their contribution limits a response that James Browning, regional director for state operations at clean election advocacy group Common Cause, describes as "fighting fire with gasoline."

"Unfortunately it's a bad virus that has caught on among some states right now," Browning said. "I think it's a case of state legislators hearing the deafening silence on these issues in Congress."

U.S. Senate Democrats in 2011 introduced a constitutional amendment that would overturn the Citizens United ruling, but those reforms have gone nowhere.

Legislation to increase transparency by requiring groups to disclose where they got their money which clean-election advocates have pushed for since the Citizens United ruling has failed repeatedly in Congress. A 2010 proposal passed the U.S. House of Representatives but lacked the votes to break a Republican filibuster in the Senate. U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro and Jim Himes are co-sponsors of this year's version of the bill, but prospects of passage seem grim.

Supporters of Connecticut's new campaign finance rules point to provisions for additional disclosure requirements, which they say will help trace the source of spending.

The legislation requires all groups that spend on a candidate's behalf to disclose their top five donors. Groups making independent expenditures within six months of an election have to disclose all donors who contribute more than $5,000, and those making independent expenditures within 90 days are required to disclose secondary donors the top five donors to their top five donors. The new bill also adds to what must be included in the disclaimer message required in television ads and other forms of campaign communications.

"In the short term, it really is all about disclosure because tracking that money and connecting it to favors in the legislature is what's going to expose the problem," said Browning.

The General Assembly gave legislative approval to these changes weeks after a top aide to former House Speaker Christopher Donovan was convicted for concealing illegal campaign contributions to his boss's failed congressional campaign. Current state legislators were mentioned during testimony about a scheme to kill a proposed tax on roll-your-own tobacco shops, a scandal that last year dismantled Donovan's bid for Congress.

"The lesson of these scandals is not that there are some unethical people in office," said Browning. "The real lesson is that the whole system is unethical."

Courant Staff Writer Christopher Keating contributed to this story.

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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