After hearing from an expert panel on corporate influence in elections, the chairs of Government Administration and Elections Committee said Monday they are unlikely to pass governor’s recommended changes to the state’s public finance system.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s 117-page bill would modify the state’s program for publicly funded campaigns. Currently, candidates receiving public funds are limited to raising just enough money to qualify for a state grant, but a provision in the bill would allow them to accept unlimited amounts from private sources if their opponents spend more than the state gave them.
Last week, the governor defended the provision as necessitated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations, unions, and special interest groups to funnel unlimited amounts of money into political campaigns.
“If there’s no consequence to that, that practice will come to Connecticut,” he said.
Malloy, who used public funding during his gubernatorial campaign, said he believes allowing publicly funded candidates to stay competitive is the only way to keep the system intact.
“I’m trying to preserve a public system.” he said. “I’m willing to live by those rules but you can’t live by those rules and have other people come and destroy the value of those rules. There’s got to be a consequence. I hope that that never happens.”
But Sen. Gayle Slossberg and Rep. Russ Morin, co-chairs of the legislative committee the bill must pass through, said the provision probably won’t be in the bill that they pass.
“The governor’s proposal was clearly put out there as a way to start the discussion. Now we’re finding alternatives that will help us address the landscape after Citizens United but also maintain the integrity of our clean elections system,” Slossberg said.
Morin said it is important that the system be used to keep the voices of the state’s citizens in the forefront, rather than outside influences.
“One of the strongest things in our state is keeping the people’s voice heard,” Morin said. “I think we have to be very leery of opening the door to huge donations.”
Their comments came after the committee hosted an informational hearing to listen to experts discuss the fallout from the Citizens United decision.
One speaker, Nick Nyhart, co-founder and president of Public Campaign, said that while the governor’s plan may allow publicly funded candidates to remain competitive against highly funded opponents, it defeats the purpose of the program.
“It certainly betrays the spirit of the law. Such a solution could take us back to the days of ‘Corrupticut’ or worse, with gubernatorial candidates forced to rely on millionaire and billionaire special interest contributors, much as we are seeing in this year’s presidential race,” he said.
Nyhart said the provision may also be unconstitutional because of another Supreme Court ruling, which said new public funds triggered by the spending of opponents or outside groups were a violation of the First Amendment.
Donald J. Simon, an election law attorney from Washington, D.C., agreed.
“Raising contribution limits in response to outside spending is red flag under the Supreme Court rulings and I think very likely unconstitutional in addition to being bad policy,” he said.
Andrew McDonald, Malloy’s chief legal counsel, said in proposing the provision the governor was trying to start a conversation about how to level playing field for publicly funded candidates competing against self-funders with the ability to spend millions.
“If the committee has other methods of dealing with this type of problem, I look forward to working with them on their proposal,” McDonald said in a release.
Slossberg said the committee heard a number of ideas that will help protect the state’s clean elections system, such as strengthening the law requiring the disclosure of independent expenditures and increasing the penalties for non-compliance.
The hope is that if voters know who is paying for political ads, they’ll be able to better gauge how seriously they take them. Morin said political ads have become negative and sometimes untruthful.
“To the casual observer, those types of displays can sway them. I think to the educated voter — which there are many of — they know what’s up,” he said.
Lawmakers heard firsthand the effect that more or less anonymous campaign spending can have on state elections. Former North Carolina lawmaker Christopher Heagarty said that unchecked spending allowed by the Citizens United ruling essentially reshaped his state’s legislature.
“In 2010, many different interests all came together, many from out of state, and helped overthrow the North Carolina House and Senate. It gave the Republican Party control of the legislature for the first time since the 1800s,” he said.
Heagarty, a Democrat, said the same interests also ousted incumbent Republicans who weren’t considered conservative enough a few years earlier.
“One individual, a very wealthy individual, decided that the state’s senior Republican leadership was not pure enough and he decided to purge them in a series of nasty primaries filled with attack ads that exploited the margins of our campaign finance laws,” he said.
Though the state prided itself on its campaign finance disclosure law, Heagarty said the law was easily skirted by creating a web of charitable and nonprofit organizations funded by one source. The groups were then used to shuffle money from corporate and private donors around the country, he said.
The result was a series of political attacks, the origin of which were almost impossible to track, he said.
“You may argue that one man may not be able to buy a legislature. But he was definitely the catalyst that set in motion a huge influx of secret money — corporate money, private money, out-of-state money — that sent into retirement dozens members of the North Carolina House and Senate,” he said.
Heagarty acknowledged that none of that violated the constitution, but suggested that voters should know the source of a message. He likened the process to the sometimes uncivil nature of anonymous Internet posts.
“That name should be disclosed to the voters and they should decide how credible the attacks are,” he said. “Own your speech.”
Slossberg and Morin said they are hoping the bill that eventually leaves the committee will help ensure that voters know who is funding the ads that air in Connecticut during this year’s election.