(Updated) It was clear shortly after the public testimony began Monday that the Citizens’ Election Program remains a hotly contested political issue with some individuals staking out some unlikely positions that put them on the same side as their political opponents.
The Citizens Election Program has been considered a national model for publicly funded elections, and is even thought to have leveled the playing field in the last election during which a few Connecticut seats were won by candidates who were, up until then, considered long shots at best. But the Green Party sued the state, claiming the law set an unconstitutionally high bar for third parties, and won.
That ruling has thrown the coming election into chaos, but the Democrat-controlled legislature and Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell have proposed bills addressing the court’s concerns. At a public hearing on the two bills it was clear that the program remains controversial.
Republican Party Chris Healy opened his remarks Monday by saying that it’s a historic day in Connecticut because he and Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, agree on something and that’s the elimination of the Citizens Election Program.
A little embarrassed by the analogy, Prague walked out of the room and clarified that she would like to see the program suspended for two years as the state attempts to deal with its budget deficit.
“We don’t have the money to fix the technical schools,” Prague said. “We don’t have money for diapers for babies.” She said the state should put a cap on how much money it spends on campaigns.
Healy, who also hated to admit he agreed with the American Civil Liberties Union on the issue, said the state should be moving onto more important things, instead of fixing something that’s “unfixable.”
“It’s arrogant and objectionable to anyone who values free speech,“ Healy said. “We feel this current law constricts free speech,” because it doesn’t allow everyone to participate and protects incumbents.
State contractors, their spouses, and lobbyists are no longer allowed to contribute under the current law, a position that was upheld by the trial court, but is one of the issues being challenged in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
Brooks Campion, president of the Connecticut Association of Lobbyists, said both bills remained silent on this issue, yet when the case was argued in front of the Second Circuit Court, the lobbyist and contractor ban on campaign donations was given equal time.
She said she’s still optimistic the legislature will see fit to address the issue in one of the two bills.
Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, asked if she felt like the ban had influenced the power lobbyists had at the Capitol.
All it’s done is consolidate the power with those who held it before the law was implemented, Campion said. For example, even though labor unions lobby they are still allowed under the current law to give money to Political Action Committees, she said. After the law went into effect, the lobbyist association disbanded all of its PACs.
“I feel strongly that the influence of lobbyists has changed,” Lawlor said.
But Campion said even in the past lawmakers would take their campaign donations and vote against their clients’ issue. She said she doesn’t think things have changed in that regard. What the lobbyists are more concerned about is their ability and their families ability to participate in the political process, even at the town committee level.
The lobbyist and contractor ban on campaign donations, along with the entire system of giving qualifying candidates matching grants, is being challenged in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. It’s still uncertain when the court will rule.
This summer U.S. District Court Judge Stefan Underhill ruled that the Citizens Election Program was unconstitutional because it imposed an unfair burden for minor party candidates seeking to qualify for matching campaign funds.
The Citizens’ Election Program makes matching contributions to candidates once they qualify by raising small donations from their constituents.
Sen. Gayle Slossberg, co-chairwoman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said at the outset of the hearing that “this legislature believes the law is constitutional” and will do whatever it takes to preserve the program. Rep. James Spallone, co-chairman of the Government Administrations and Elections Committee, agreed. He said he thinks this legislature and this governor are up to the task of correcting the law in light of the court decision.
While Slossberg said she would have liked to hear more testimony specifically about the two proposed bills, she understands that it’s an election year and there’s “a lot of political posturing going on.”
Simsbury First Selectman Mary Glassman, who is also exploring a run for governor, submitted testimony in support of the program.
“No longer do you have to be a multimillionaire or a wealthy person in order to seek public office,” Glassman wrote in her testimony.
Ned Lamont, the Greenwich cable executive, who has said he won’t use the public financing system in his bid for governor, had campaign staff monitoring the hearing Monday, but did not submit testimony.
Beth Rotman, director of the Citizens’ Election Program said, “the most dangerous thing this body can do is do nothing.”
“If the judgment is negative, the committee would have seven days to fix the law. And the Second Circuit decision is likely to be as long and complicated as Underhill’s decision,” Rotman said.
She encouraged the committee to act quickly on the bills.
The governor’s bill will repeal provisions in the law that require minor parties to have received a percentage of the total vote cast for that office in the last election. It will also repeal provisions that require petitioning party candidates to collect signatures representing a percentage of the total vote cast in the last election for that office.
The bill will also reduce grant amounts for specific offices in response to Underhill’s concern that the sums amounted to a “windfall” for many candidates.
The bill proposed by the committee does not repeal the burdens of third parties, but does lower them. The committee’s bill will also increase the amount qualifying contributions to participate in the program.
Grants for candidates who run unopposed have been removed as well. Grants to all candidates, except those running for governor, have also been lowered.
Here is a chart comparing the grant amounts candidates would receive under current law and the two proposed bills.
Chase Carnot contributed to the reporting of this article.