Connecticut lawmakers heard a number of suggestions Thursday about how to address a federal judge’s ruling that struck down the state’s fledgling campaign finance law more than a year before the 2010 election.
But it was still unclear after the more than two-hour forum how exactly the legislature should proceed.
“We should be careful when and to what extent we make a move because the legal landscape could change,” Rep. James Spallone, co-chairman of the legislature’s General Administration and Elections Committee, said.
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has appealed U.S. District Court Judge Stefan Underhill’s decision to the U.S. Second Circuit Court, but on Thursday no one was certain when the case would be heard.
“In an ideal world we’d wait until the court finished,” Spallone said.
However, there’s a provision in the law that says on April 15 or if the decision to delay enforcement of the lower court’s ruling is lifted, the fundraising system will revert back to the way it was in 2005 within 168 hours, or seven days.
Shannon Kief, an attorney with the state Elections Enforcement Commission, said that’s not a lot of time for the legislature to act to avoid complete dissolution of the program.
If the reversion clause is triggered, Kief said candidates that already received their public grants would get to keep them and the candidates that qualified for the grants, but had not yet received them, would not get the money.
“Election day is coming up and some action is warranted, but what exactly that is remains to be seen,” Spallone said.
“The highest risk is doing nothing,” Beth Rotman, executive director of the Citizens Election Program, told the legislature’s General Administration and Elections Committee.
The state Elections Enforcement Commission and Common Cause, a public financing advocacy group, want lawmakers to make changes immediately and, if nothing else, repeal the reversion clause so the entire system doesn’t just disappear.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, which represents the minor party candidates that are the plaintiffs in the case, want the legislature to fix the problems Underhill pointed out in his decision.
Underhill found the law was unconstitutional because it imposed an unfair burden on minor party candidates seeking to qualify for matching campaign funds.
The ACLU advocated two changes to the law in a yellow flyer distributed Thursday. One will allow all ballot-qualified candidates who meet relatively modest qualifying criteria to participate in public financing. Secondly it wants the independent expenditure provision eliminated because it gives major party candidates more money every time a minor party candidate spends money.
State Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, said he found Underhill’s decision compelling.
Maybe minor party candidates should be held to the same qualifying standard as major party candidates?, Rep. Thomas Drew, D-Fairfield, wondered. He said just because the same rules are applied doesn’t mean it will create the same result.
Rotman reminded Drew that the provision was written that way to protect the public funds in the program.
Former Elections Enforcement Commissioner Jeffrey Garfield has said when the legislature wrote the legislation, it was “rightfully concerned with fringe candidates and the possible drain on the public fisc.” That was one of the areas on which Underhill focused when he wrote his decision.
The myriad issues raised Thursday should be discussed in a special session, Spallone said. A special session before the February regular session would give lawmakers time to focus on this one issue, he said.
“It’s worth that kind of close scrutiny,” Spallone said.
Click here to read Aldon Hynes’ blow-by-blow account of the hearing.