Christine Stuart photo
Sen. Michael McLachlan speaks as Sen. Anthony Musto listens (Christine Stuart photo)

The Senate gave final passage early Tuesday morning to a bill redefining the state’s public campaign financing system in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Lawmakers in the Senate approved the bill at just after midnight in a 21-14, party-line vote. The House approved the legislation following an all-night session on Saturday.

The bill is an attempt by the General Assembly to give publicly financed candidates the funds to respond to an infusion of outside dollars made possible under the Citizens United decision. That ruling changed the nature of elections by allowing unlimited amounts of money to be spent by outside groups.

Although the bill calls for additional disclosure requirements from outside Super PACs spending on behalf of candidates, much of the Senate debate centered on the legislation’s lifting of spending limitations currently imposed on state party committees. It also lifts restrictions on leadership PACs, and other groups.

The bill lets groups raise and contribute more money to candidates without imposing limits on donations State Central Committees can give to candidates funded by the state’s public financing system. It also doubles the contribution that an individual can give to the party from $5,000 to $10,000.

The bill also eliminates the restrictions regarding negative campaigning on behalf of publicly funded candidates. The bill lets a party committee or leadership PAC fund negative campaign material for a publicly funded candidate.

Sen. Michael McLachlan, ranking Republican on the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said that the people who drafted Connecticut public financing system would be disappointed to see how the bill changed it. He said it will result in a “negative ad bonanza.”

“Now we’re talking about unlimited funds available to come out of State Central Committees, dumped into one of these citizens election program campaigns and ‘go clobber the opponent,’” he said. “That’s not what this program was about when it was designed.”

But lawmakers who have been the target of outside PAC money said the additional funds will help candidates respond to PAC-funded attacks late in elections. Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, was one of several lawmakers who was opposed by ads funded by a wealthy Greenwich businessman shortly before last year’s election.

“This whole bill is like a budget. There’s some things you like and some things you don’t like. But we can’t just go without providing some protections against what took place,” he said. “It was wrong, it was sneaky, it last minute, and we had no ability to counter it.”

Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney said that late infusion of cash into last year’s election represented a crisis in Connecticut’s clean elections system, which up until that point had been working.

“It is almost as if you’ve had two boxers who have agreed to abide by the Marquess of Queensberry rules and then all of the sudden one of them puts on brass knuckles. And then the issue is, is one of them going to be bound by the rules by which they began?” Looney asked.

Looney called it “regrettable” that some of the provisions were in the bill, but he said they were necessary.

The bill aligned Republicans and clean election advocates. Cherie Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause in Connecticut, said many aspects of the bill are “distressing.”

“We’re really disappointed that the language seems to permit an additional deluge of money into the system,” Quickmire said.

She acknowledged in the wake of Citizens United that many lawmakers fear having to fight for their political lives. She said she’s certain the bill was crafted with the best of intentions.

“Unfortunately, it seemed that the response to more money in elections was to find more ways to get money into elections,” Quickmire said.

The League of Women Voters also circulated fliers around the state Capitol urging lawmakers to vote against the legislation, saying the group believed the bill will invite the “corrosive influence of secret money” in government.

The league also objected to the “alarming” way the bill was brought to the floor, through an amendment, which the public was never able to review.

Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said she spoke to Monday with former Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who helped see passage of the clean elections system in the aftermath of former Gov. John Rowland’s corruption scandal. Boucher reported that Rell felt the bill was “dismantling” the clean elections system.

“She’s taken a fairly quiet approach to being a former governor she hasn’t weighing in very often on any of the issues here,” she said, adding that she heard from Rell that day. “… When she just couldn’t help herself and expressed her tremendous dismay as to what is happening here.”

The bill will now go to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk. Malloy vetoed similar disclosure legislation last year, citing concerns that it was unconstitutional. Malloy’s staff has indicated the governor was in favor of this year’s legislation.

When it passed the House, Luke Bronin, Malloy’s chief legal counsel, 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.”