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Showdown Looms In Fight Over Campaign Finance Law

BY EDMUND H. MAHONY

July 29, 2010

Lawmakers making mid-election repairs to the state's sweeping campaign finance and reform laws were closing in on agreement Thursday but faced a showdown with Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who promised to veto any fix that increases the amount of public campaign grants to gubernatorial candidates.

Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D- New Haven, called the threat by Rell, a Republican, "a purely political calculation" designed to increase her party's chances at winning the governorship in the plausible event that a wealthy, self-funded Republican faces off against a publicly financed Democrat in the general election.

Rell has been a vigorous supporter of campaign reform and public financing. But she said the state is facing a "huge budget deficit" and she opposes any corrective measure that has the effect of increasing funding to candidates for governor for fiscal reasons. She also warned lawmakers against making revisions to the law that could provoke further constitutional challenges.

"I am as committed to this program today as I was back in 2005 when I first proposed it," Rell said in a letter to the legislative leadership.

The disagreement between the Democrat-controlled legislature and the governor seemed unresolvable Thursday evening, hours before the General Assembly was scheduled to go into special session today to vote on modifications that would salvage the campaign law. Parts of the law were found to be constitutionally deficient earlier this month by a federal appeals court in New York.

Some Republican lawmakers were supporting Rell's position. But Democratic leaders said they were pushing ahead with language that would increase key public campaign grants to gubernatorial candidates, as well as candidates for other Constitutional offices, such as attorney general, treasurer, comptroller and secretary of the state.

Looney said he believes lawmakers will have enough votes to override a Rell veto.

There is a degree of urgency associated with repairing the law. More than 180 candidates are participating in the program that provides public grants to finance their campaigns. Several are involved in bruising primary campaigns. After the Aug. 10 primary elections, the law releases another round of grants to cover the costs of participating candidates competing in general elections.

In the meantime, lawyers involved in the suit that raised the constitutional questions were continuing their own arguments in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport about how to resolve them.

The lawyers said that, if the legislature fails to enact language repairing the law's defects, a court order will likely be issued that could result in the effective repeal of the entire reform and financing law midway through the election season. Candidates with budgets based on public grants would be left in the lurch.

One of the corrective measures headed for the special legislative session today was written to eliminate the possibility that the landmark campaign law would be effectively revoked. It would allow parts of the law struck down by courts to be severed from what remains. There was unanimous support for adopting what is being called the severability provision.

The only issue subject to strong disagreement was the proposed increase in campaign grants to gubernatorial candidates. Rell asked lawmakers if they decide to increase the grants to do so in a separate bill so her veto does not kill other corrective measures necessary to bring the law into conformity with the appeals court decision.

The appeals court upheld the core of the campaign law in its July 13 decision. But it ruled that three key components amounted to a violation of political free speech.

The court struck down the law's complete prohibition against campaign contributions by lobbyists. And it ruled that two of the law's financing provisions were illegal. The "trigger provisions" released supplemental campaign grants to publicly financed candidates who are widely outspent by privately financed opponents or are the subjects of special interest attack ads.

In the case of candidates for governor in the general election, the trigger provisions would have issued qualifying candidates initial grants of $3 million. They could receive a maximum of $3 million more if they were widely outspent by a privately funded opponent. And they could have received up to $3 million more if they were targeted by special interests in attack ads. If a candidate qualified for maximum funding under both trigger provisions, he or she could have received a total of $9 million in public financing.

Democrats in the General Assembly want to replace the trigger provisions with language that would simply increase the size of the initial grants to candidates for governor and statewide, constitutional offices. In the case of gubernatorial candidates, the grants would double from $3 million to $6 million.

There was bipartisan support Thursday for replacing the portion of the law prohibiting lobbyist donations with new language that would limit their contributions to $100 in most cases.

Democrats were criticizing Rell's opposition to doubling the gubernatorial grants on two grounds. They said it was a mid-campaign abandonment of the law's intent to provide funding to candidates who agreed to forego financing by special interests. And they said her fiscal argument was fallacious because their proposal would cap spending on participating candidates for governor at $6 million. They said the current state budget was written against the possibility that a candidate could receive up to $9 million.

Beth Rotman, who directs the public campaign program at the State Elections Enforcement Commission, said there is enough money in the program to sustain the grant increases proposed by Democrats. The program began the 2010 election cycle with about $40 million in its campaign fund, she said.

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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