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Connecticut's Public Campaign Finance Law Pruned, Revived

Campaign Reform Public financing survives for now, but elections made safer for millionaires

Hartford Courant Editorial

July 15, 2010

The Citizens' Election Program Connecticut's landmark effort to remove the taint of special-interest money from elections and to reinvigorate our democracy by leveling the playing field for candidates through voluntary public financing of campaigns still lives.

That's the most important reality after the dust begins to settle from the release of three court rulings Tuesday.

At some point but not necessarily in the immediate future a special session of the General Assembly will probably be needed to fix constitutional deficiencies found in Connecticut's program by the federal courts.

U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill basically had his head handed to him by a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which on Tuesday overruled his finding last year that Connecticut's public financing law was unconstitutional on the grounds that it discriminated against minor-party candidates. Not so, said the panel. The case was returned to Judge Underhill for further review and action.

The appellate court negated Judge Underhill's injunction against the law that would have shut it down until all defects were fixed by the legislature. The injunction "would have padlocked the program completely," said Beth Rotman, director of the Citizens' Election Program.

So the program is operable, at least through the Aug. 10 primary election and probably through the general election in November.

But there was bad news for reformers, too.

Lobbyists' Contributions

The circuit court struck down the law's ban on political contributions by lobbyists and the prohibition against solicitations of contributions on behalf of candidates by lobbyists and contractors (it upheld the ban on contributions by state contractors, which is helpful). These prohibitions are meant to clean up campaigns and eliminate conflicts of interests and implied bribes.

The ban on lobbyist contributions can be fixed by the legislature by capping those contributions at, say, $100. That amount won't buy much influence.

The clean election law suffered another defeat when the circuit court ruled that the state cannot give additional grants of public funds to candidates participating in the Citizens' Election Program whose self-financing opponents spend above a certain level. The ruling could conceivably affect participants Democrat Dan Malloy and Republican Michael Fedele if either wins his party's primary for governor.

The legislature can fix that, too, by eliminating the supplemental grant and increasing the size of the basic grant now $3 million given to party nominees for governor who participate in the public financing system.

Both Mr. Malloy and Mr. Fedele received supplemental grants the kind the federal court just outlawed as primary election candidates.

Extra Funds Necessary

Superior Court Judge Julia Aurigemma Tuesday denied a request by Mr. Fedele's Republican opponents to stop him from spending public funds. Front-runner Tom Foley immediately announced he would appeal the decision to the Connecticut Supreme Court, an aggressive posture that may cost Foley some points for sportsmanship.

Supplemental funds or a larger basic grant are needed so that publicly financed candidates can stay competitive with wealthy self-financing candidates. But the federal courts seem determined to stack the deck in favor of the wealthy. The U.S. Supreme Court, and now the Second Circuit, has ruled that supplemental grants somehow "chill" the free speech rights of self-financing candidates.

That explanation is lost on most people. The candidates who can afford to pay for a modern political campaign are blessed with substantial bank accounts. Have the rich ever been denied their right to speak their minds?

Public financing for candidates is the best way to guarantee competitive elections free of special-interest influence.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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