The fate of Connecticut's system of using taxpayer dollars to pay for political campaigns is about to be decided by a federal appeals court. And, if part of this public-financing scheme is ultimately declared unconstitutional (as seems likely), it could trigger one bad-ass mother of a legislative brawl.
Lawmakers are already sweating over U.S. District Judge Stefan R. Underhill's findings that two key sections of the law violate the constitution. One concerns the ban on state political contributions by state lobbyists and contractors; and the other decrees how minor party candidates are treated. The state is now appealing those rulings.
Legal experts say it's hard to know what's going to happen if Underhill's decisions in the two separate lawsuits are sustained. The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which doesn't make a habit of screwing with lower court rulings, could also pick and choose which pieces of Underhill's decisions they support or reject.
Connecticut's public financing scheme had its first try-out during last year's legislative elections. A high percentage of candidates chose to participate and get some of those sweet public dollars. Officials estimated they would need to spend about $60 million in public money on next year's campaigns because big statewide offices like governor and attorney general are on the ballot. Unless, of course, the whole thing blows up.
Some of the system's defenders fear that sending this law back to the General Assembly for a constitutional fix will end up in deadlock. Doing nothing is what state lawmakers do best. Stalemate would return Connecticut to the days when state candidates and political parties were addicted to an intoxicating flood of special interest dollars. This reform plan was pushed though following the corruption scandals of ex-Gov. John G. Rowland and his cronies.
A lot of Connecticut pols still hate the idea of replacing old-style lobbyist and contractor money with public funds and giving challenge candidates the same money as incumbents.
The constitutional debate has created some weird alliances and a peculiar split in Connecticut's left wing.
Betty Gallo and Chris Healy don't often find themselves sharing the same political bed.
Gallo is one of those bleeding-heart liberals, a "White Hat" lobbyist who regularly crosses swords with the "Black Hats" representing big business. Healy is chairman of Connecticut's Republican Party and regularly rants against tax-and-spend, anti-business lefties.
Both are rooting for the campaign-finance law to be overturned. They insist the ban on political giving by lobbyists and contractors is a violation of First Amendment free-speech rights.
Gallo is in the awkward position of helping to challenge a public-financing plan she believes is good for democracy. A former lobbyist for Common Cause, Gallo thinks replacing special interest money with public funding is an admirable concept. What she doesn't like is someone telling her she can't participate in politics.
"The U.S. Supreme Court has said political contributions are in fact free speech," Gallo said. She says the current law even forbids lobbyists from mentioning to their neighbors that a lawmaker is having a local fundraiser.
Gallo said she doesn't want a return to the scandal-plagued days of special interests dominating state campaigns. (The law, by the way, doesn't apply to federal elective offices.)
"Supporting the First Amendment is not easy," Gallo said. "You can't just be halfway in favor of free speech. ... You have to support speech you don't like."
Healy argues the ban on contributions by lobbyists and contractors is so broad that it has "put a lot of activists at the local level out of politics" and left state party organizations like his sucking wind in the political fundraising game.
"We in the Republican Party don't believe people's tax dollars should be used to promote a political philosophy we don't agree with," Healy said.
Then you have an interesting disagreement between liberals like Jon Green and Mike DeRosa.
DeRosa is co-chairman of Connecticut's Green Party. He calls the current system the "No Democrat or Republican Left Behind Law," arguing it discriminates against minor parties to the benefit of major party incumbents.
"We support campaign finance reform," DeRosa insisted. But he said it's ridiculously unfair to make a minor-party candidate for governor collect 200,000 valid voter signatures starting in January 2010 in order to qualify for public funding for the 2010 election.
Green, director of the Working Families Party, opposes the effort to blow up the current law in order to make it easier for minor parties (like his) to get public financing.
"We feel very strongly that this public financing system, while not perfect, did improve the climate for minor parties and minor-party candidates," he said. According to Green, minor party candidates "who are willing to do the work" can now get far more in public money than they could ever raise under the old system.
"The worst thing that could happen would be for legislators to throw up their hands and say, 'We give up,' " Green said.
State Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney worries that's exactly what could happen if any part of the law is declared unconstitutional.
Looney doesn't agree that it would be simple to change the rules requiring minor parties jump through special hoops to get funding that automatically goes to major party candidates. "I don't think there is a fix that can be undertaken without cratering the entire system," he said.
The killer in Looney's eyes is the possibility that making it easier for minor-party candidates to qualify for pubic money would mean lots more candidates, which would boost the overall cost far beyond the anticipated $60 million. (Andrew Schneider, director of Connecticut's ACLU, disputes such predictions, saying Maine and Arizona have much fairer, workable public financing laws that haven't triggered financial problems.)
None of this is made any easier by the fact the legislature and the governor have just ended a record-breaking budget battle with a shaky compromise that won't solve all of the state's recession-related fiscal troubles.
If no more taxpayer money is available, then a minor-party fix might require chopping public grants to all candidates — something unacceptable to many nervous incumbents. At the moment, qualifying candidates for state House races get $25,000 and state Senate candidates get $85,000 for the general election.
Critics have called those grants obscenely high. But Looney said those generous amounts were "exactly the things that helped get the bill to pass in the first place."
The best solution would be for lawmakers to suck it up and fix the law without waiting for the courts. But we're talking here about the General Assembly, a place where "best solutions" are seldom seen.