Good government advocates concede that the state’s clean election program may need some work after this year’s election cycle.
On one hand, 2014 was a banner year for Connecticut’s public campaign finance system. Both candidates for governor, all the candidates for constitutional office, and more than 80 percent of the candidates for General Assembly seats participated.
On the other hand, outside groups spent $15.9 million on the governor’s race, outpacing the $13 million the two candidates received from the clean election program.
The public financing program has been on the books since 2005, when it was passed in response to former Gov. John G. Rowland’s corruption scandal. But last Tuesday was the first test of the law as it was reshaped by the legislature last year.
The 2013 legislation was a reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed unlimited amounts of money to be spent by outside groups. To combat the spending they anticipated from outside groups, the legislature eased limitations on the amount of money parties and legislative committees could raise.
Lawmakers increased the amount of money donors could give to state political parties, then removed restrictions on how much the party could spend on their publicly-financed candidates. The 2013 law preserved a ban on state contractors donating to political party accounts for state candidates. But the Democratic Party found a way around that during this election.
The law allows state contractors to donate up to $10,000 to a political party’s federal account. This year, Democrats used their federal account to pay for mailers supporting Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. In response to an unsuccessful lawsuit filed by Republicans, a lawyer for the Democratic Party said the mailer could be funded by the federal account because it contained voting instructions and a phone number for rides to a polling place.
“The Democrats showed they were happy to misuse federal money to get what they wanted,” Karen Hobert Flynn, senior vice president of Common Cause, said Sunday. “It’s a real problem.”
The Republican Party took the Democratic Party to court, but failed to prove they had standing. Election regulators publicly admonished the Democratic Party in a letter to the Federal Election Commission, but neither seemed to faze the Democrats.
The party withdrew its request for guidance on the matter shortly after the Republicans filed their lawsuit. State election regulators are still looking into the matter.
Malloy wasn’t the only clean election candidate to benefit from a huge influx of state party help. The Democratic Party boosted Ted Kennedy Jr.’s public-financed campaign for state Senate by $207,000.
That extra help was “very nearly matched, dollar for dollar” with contributions made to the Democratic Party by Kennedy’s friends, family, and business associates, according to a complaint filed with state election regulators by Madison Republican Town Chairman Tom Banisch.
“They did not ‘find’ the money to spend on Kennedy — Kennedy raised that money for the party with the explicit understanding that it would be illegally earmarked to be returned to his campaign,” Banisch says in the complaint.
The Republican Party didn’t spend money in the same way on legislative candidates based on their October filing with the state. The next filing isn’t due until January.
What can be done to fix it?
Tom Swan, executive director of Connecticut Citizens Action Group, and Hobert Flynn agreed that adding spending limits would be a good idea.
“Clearly we need to revisit some of the limits such as unlimited amounts by parties for legislative and governor candidates and all, and we really need to figure out how to deal with guaranteed disclosure,” Swan said.
In addition to putting limits on what the party can spend, “you could also lower the amount people are allowed to contribute to the party,” Hobert Flynn said.
In 2013, the legislature increased the amount an individual can donate to the party from $5,000 to $10,000.
Many state contractors took advantage of the provision for giving the $10,000 maximum to the party’s federal account, which the Democratic Party ended up using for the Malloy mailers.
“We don’t want to see federal money coming into state accounts — we’d like that to be cleared up,” Swan said.
At the same time, Swan said he’s conscious of dark money in the system.
A Public Voice, an Ohio-based nonprofit organization, gave $1.7 million to Grow Connecticut, a PAC affiliated with the Republican Governors Association. The Ohio-based group was located at the law offices of David Langdon. Langdon was instrumental in 2004 in getting Ohio to pass a referendum declaring that a marriage could only be between a man and a woman.
“The fact that a bunch of homophobes are able to weigh in with $1.1 million in secret donations without disclosing who’s behind the money is [expletive] criminal,” Swan said.
Rep. Ed Jutila, D-Niantic, who for the past two years has chaired the General Administrations and Elections Committee, said he’s open to what groups like Common Cause and CCAG have to say.
It’s unclear whether Jutila will maintain his chairmanship of the committee, but he said he’s never been “completely comfortable with what we did in 2013 by increasing the thresholds and the amount of money candidates can receive.”
However, he noted that there has to be a balance struck so that a clean election candidate doesn’t end up getting bombarded with negative ads from outside groups days before the election. That’s what happened in 2012 to several legislative candidates.
Outgoing Senate Minority Leader John McKinney used the program in his unsuccessful gubernatorial bid this year. McKinney, a Fairfield Republican, called Monday for changes including closing what he called the “Kennedy loophole” and clarifying the law prohibiting state contractor dollars from statewide races.
“That state parties can spend unlimited amounts on behalf of [Citizens Election Program] candidates is just wrong,” he said. “The legislature needs to cap how much the state parties can give to participating candidates.”
McKinney said he did not see the state legislature moving away from the program anytime soon.
“If that’s the case they need to tighten it so the intent of the law, which is to create a fair playing field and eliminate the influence of special interest money, is met,” he said.
In the meantime, Hobert Flynn said clean election advocates will be watching to see if policymakers attempt to weaken the State Election Enforcement Commission by decreasing its budget.
The Malloy administration has already consolidated the agency and Hobert Flynn worries that any further cuts could impact the ability to investigate election complaints.
There’s also an opportunity, if lawmakers don’t believe the system is fair, to allow a second round of funding to be given to the candidates. Hobert Flynn said in Maine they have a second qualifying round for candidates who need extra resources based on what their opponent is spending on the race.
The reason lawmakers sought to mend some of the disclosure laws and increase funding from parties was because they feared what would happen under Citizens United if an outside group came in and spent a lot of money against them. As clean election candidates, they would have no resources to fight back.
But what was so troubling about that was Malloy was the one raising money for the state party. It wasn’t a surrogate, but Malloy himself, she said.
“It looked like a quid pro quo,” Hobert Flynn said. “The very thing the clean election system was trying to get out.”
“People in Connecticut don’t want to go back to Corrupticut,” she added.
Hobert Flynn said the state really needs to fix some of these “rifts” it’s created in the system over the next four years.