Christine Stuart photo
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey (Christine Stuart photo)

With an eye toward the 2014 election cycle, the House passed a bill early Saturday morning that makes significant changes to the state’s landmark public campaign finance system.

The bill, which passed 71 to 59, increases the amount of money State Central Committees, leadership PACs, and other groups can both raise and give to candidates. Previous drafts of the bill would have capped the amount of money State Central Committees could give to clean election candidates, but that cap was removed and there were no limits on donations to clean election candidates under the version of the bill passed shortly before 3 a.m.

The bill also doubles the amount of money an individual can give to State Central Committees from $5,000 to $10,000.

Proponents said they needed to increase the amount of money parties and legislative committees can raise because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed unlimited amounts of money to be spent by outside groups.

“The reality is we’re in a different world than we were in 2005 . . . thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United,” House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said. “So as a result now we have third parties, well-funded, who are capable of infusing major dollars into campaigns at any point in the campaign — negative or otherwise.”

The bill also eliminates the restrictions regarding negative campaigning on behalf of publicly funded candidates.

Sharkey said that particular change was allowed because Super PACs spending money against candidates can go negative with just weeks to go in a campaign. He said if that candidate is publicly funded, they probably don’t have enough resources to respond to a false accusation. He said they wanted to make sure that a leadership PAC or another source is able to respond on behalf of that candidate.

House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, who opposed the public finance bill in 2005, said the one good thing about it was that it required candidates to “own it” if they decided to engage in negative campaigning. He said the theory was that “maybe you would think twice before you perpetuated that negativity.”

“It wasn’t a bad idea. In fact, it was a darn good idea,” Cafero said during what ended up being a brief two-hour debate.

Christine Stuart photo
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero (Christine Stuart photo)

Under the bill, a State Central Committee or a leadership PAC can spend money on negative campaign material on behalf of a publicly financed candidate.

In his criticism of the bill, Cafero said “we are saying we no longer believe that if you’re going to go negative you gotta stand behind it as a candidate.”

When the legislature passed the landmark campaign finance legislation eight years ago, they sought to get rid of money in politics. Cafero claims the bill passed Saturday morning does the opposite. It opens the floodgates.

Rep. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, said the bill dramatically increases the amount of money in politics. He said it also decreases the transparency of campaigns.

“We have actually eroded some election oversight,” Hwang said. “This has also increased special interest money in politics.”

Hwang, a publicly financed candidate, said the bill is “representing the chase for money, rather than the constituents we serve.”

And as far as transparency is concerned, copies of the bill showed up as the debate began. Attorneys for the State Election Enforcement Commission sat in the House gallery reading the bill as they received texts from lawmakers involved in the debate on the floor.

Unlike previous draft versions of the bill it does not allow state contractors to contribute to local town committees. The bill passed Saturday morning keeps the current ban on donations from state contractors in place.

The 93-page bill also increases the amount of disclosure required by outside Super PACs spending on behalf of candidates in the state. The top five donors behind an independent expenditure from a PAC will have to be listed.

Last year, state Senators were the target of outside PAC money from a wealthy Greenwich businessman shortly before the election.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who can only receive as much as $6 million to run for re-election if he participates again in the public finance system, expressed his support for the legislation.

“Last year, Gov. Malloy vetoed a different version of this bill because of concerns that it would not withstand a constitutional challenge,” Malloy’s chief legal counsel Luke Bronin said. “We believe this bill strikes the right balance, respecting the right to free speech, while at the same time establishing one of the most demanding transparency and disclosure requirements in the country.”