As the legislative session wheezes to a close, a major campaign finance bill has yet to be voted upon. The current version has largely been drafted behind closed doors, which is just as bad a sign as you’d expect.
Campaign finance bills were once a source of pride for this state. The 2005 campaign finance reform was one of the most durable and wide-reaching accomplishments of former Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s administration. It was passed back in the immediate post-Rowland days when getting money out of politics was briefly in fashion at the Capitol. That reform created the system of public campaign financing, but also enacted plenty of new restrictions on PACs and banned contractors and lobbyists from making contributions.
This new campaign finance bill works to undo and undermine pieces of that landmark law. First, the 2005 law banned so-called “ad books,” which allow contributions from businesses that might otherwise be banned from contributing. These are incredibly lucrative: back in 2005 it was estimated that a fifth of legislative campaign income came from the ad books. This bill resurrects them, for no good reason other than politicians’ desire for more money.
Another provision increases the amount that can be donated to party committees. Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, says this is a “reaction” to the execrable Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which allowed Super PACs to spend unlimited amounts of money supporting candidates or causes. Funneling more money to party committees is “one way to try to level the playing field,” claimed Jutila.
Please. This is the same argument we seem to hear every election cycle when parties and candidates want more cash: “If we don’t spend more money, the other side definitely will!” It’s the cynical excuse the Obama campaign used to justify dropping out of the federal public campaign finance system. It seems like they’re not trying to level the playing field so much as put it completely out of reach for most people. Trust me: more money in politics isn’t going to make politics any cleaner or better. There’s more money than ever in politics, after all, and somehow things have yet to improve.
The last thing we should be doing right now is trying to draw more money in to the system, especially in the wake of the Robert Braddock Jr. corruption trial. After all, Braddock was convicted of conspiring to hide the source of campaign donations to former Speaker Christopher Donovan’s congressional campaign: tobacco store owners hoping to influence the then-Speaker against pending legislation that would have negatively impacted their businesses. Putting forward a bill that actually increases how much money people can send to party committees while claiming it’s all in the name of fighting back against moneyed interests seems like the height of hypocrisy.
The bill also targets, for depressingly obvious reasons, the Independent Party. This all probably comes from the ads Linda McMahon was running near the end of her last campaign for the U.S. Senate. She encouraged voters to vote for her on the “Independent” line (the Independent Party had cross-endorsed her). About 46,000 voters did so, which was 10,000 more than the similarly cross-endorsed ballots Chris Murphy received on the Working Families line. Of course, Murphy clobbered McMahon by nearly 200,000 votes, so it didn’t actually matter, but that didn’t stop Democrats from trying to disallow party names like “Independent Party” because, as Sen. Anthony Musto, D-Trumbull, said, people might get that confused with “unaffiliated.” This is also known as the “voters must be really stupid” rule.
In fact, draft copies of the bill also specify that no party may use words like “United States,” “America,” “Connecticut,” the name of a city or town, or any words relating to a symbol for the government or the country. One of the best-known features of this country is that we’re a democratic republic, but somehow I don’t think the Republicans or Democrats will have to change their names. Unfortunately, small parties all over the state, including the long-established Independent Party, will be forced to change.
There is nothing remotely progressive or decent about these parts of the bill. Lifting the ban on “ad books” and raising the contribution limits for state party committees undermines the 2005 campaign finance reform law, and targeting small parties seems both cruel and sadly political. The legislature shouldn’t pass this bill, and if they lose their sense and do so, the governor should veto it.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.