Christine Stuart photo

Connecticut’s new public campaign finance system, which was signed into law in 2005, was officially launched Tuesday at a ceremony where the first candidates to qualify for the program were handed their checks.

So far 145 candidates have signed up to participate in the voluntary program aimed at limiting special interests in campaign fundraising. In order to qualify for the program candidates must agree not to take any campaign money from lobbyists, contractors and Political Action Committees. And they must raise small donations from local contributors in order to qualify for Citizens Election Program funds.

Candidates running for state Senate must raise $15,000 in contributions from individuals to qualify for the $85,000 grant, while candidates running for a state House seat must raise $5,000 from individuals in order to qualify for the $25,000 grant.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who will be using the Citizens Election Program in 2010 when she runs for re-election, said Tuesday that “funding does not come from taxpayer money. It comes from other sources, such as the sale of abandoned property, voluntary contributions and the Election Program’s investment earnings.”

Christine Stuart photo

“What do the people of Connecticut get in return?  They get election campaigns free from the influence of special interests,” Rell said.

Jeffrey Garfield, executive director of the State Elections Enforcement Commission, said that good people often felt shutout of running for state office. He said Connecticut has already seen unprecedented participation in the program when compared with programs in Arizona and Maine.

Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz said it’s estimated that 70 to 80 percent of candidates will participate in public financing this year, which is historic when compared to Maine and Arizona where the participation rate was about 30 percent in the first year. She said a federal survey a few years ago found that over time both Maine and Arizona experienced significant increases in the amount of candidates contesting races in both primaries and general elections. And voter participation in these two states has risen about 10 percent since public financing was enacted, Bysiewicz noted.

In Connecticut’s first year of public financing the number of legislators running unopposed has increased since the 2006 election cycle. Republicans have been unable to find candidates in 43 of 151 House districts, while Democrats have no candidate in 15 districts, the Hartford Courant reported Tuesday. That’s up from two year ago when Republicans were unable to find candidates in just 31 of the 151 House districts and Democrats skipped about 12 races.

Tom Swan, executive director of Connecticut Citizens Action Group and proponent of public financing, said he thought the way the Courant couched its story was a little unfair. He said it’s easy for people to forget about how hard it is to be a candidate for the state legislature. “We have to understand how much we ask of these people as part-time legislators,” Swan said.

Not to mention, it’s a new system with tight deadlines, Swan said.

For more information on how the Citizens Election Fund works, visit the State Elections Enforcement Commission web site: www.ct.gov/seec