Hugh McQuaid Photo
Tom Swan (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Despite loopholes in Connecticut’s public campaign finance system, clean election advocates said Tuesday it still remains a model for other states to follow to reduce the influence of money in politics.

Several good government organizations staged a press conference in the Legislative Office Building to mark the fifth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision, which has dramatically increased the amount of money flowing into political campaigns.

Five years after the high court ruled on Citizens United, removing restrictions on corporate spending on elections, the total cost of elections has inflated and large donors are increasingly crowding out small contributors, according to a study published by advocacy groups ConnPIRG and Demos. The report estimates that $3.7 billion was spent on the 2014 elections nationwide and concludes that a U.S. Senate candidate would need to raise $3,300 daily for six years to compete with the median haul of a 2014 winner.

“The game’s rigged. Money in politics has a huge role,” Tom Swan, executive director of the Connecticut Citizens Action Group, said.

The advocates called for overturning Citizens United, a task they acknowledged may need to wait until there are some new faces on the Supreme Court.

But Swan said Connecticut has fared better than other states in part because of its program allowing candidates to qualify for taxpayer-funded campaign grants designed to eliminate the influence of contributors on elected officials. The program was adopted in response to the corruption scandal which drove former Gov. John G. Rowland from office.

Although candidate participation rates in the program were high in 2014, political parties, donors, and candidates found a number of ways to work around the spirit of the program last year.

The state legislature changed the program in 2013, fearing an influx of money made possible by the Citizens United decision. Among those changes, lawmakers increased the amount of money donors could give to state political parties, then allowed the parties to spend as much as they wanted on their publicly-financed candidates.

The Democratic Party used the amended law to contribute more than $200,000 to Ted Kennedy Jr.’s publicly financed campaign after Kennedy’s friends, family, and business associates donated a similar amount to the party.

And while Malloy and his Republican opponent, Tom Foley, participated in the public financing program, independent outside groups spent around $18 million on the race.

“There’s over a million in shadow, secretive [Political Action Committees] that went into the governor’s race that we have no idea where that came from,” Swan said.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party found a loophole to bypass a ban that should have prevented state contractors from contributing money to support Malloy’s re-election.

A complaint based on pro-Malloy mailers the party paid for with an account containing donations from contractors is still being investigated by election regulators, Michael Brandi, executive director of the State Election Enforcement Commission, said Tuesday.

The SEEC is charged with administering the public financing program and Brandi said it has drafted a set of proposals aimed at addressing some of the problems seen last year. He said the proposals include efforts to strengthen rules preventing candidates from coordinating with groups spending money on their behalf and to increase disclosure.

“Sunshine and sunlight on the dark money is, we believe, critical. We’re trying to find new ways to advance disclosure laws to capture as many of these shadow groups and shadow moneys as possible,” he said.

Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause in Connecticut, said the legislature should “fix” the public financing program and “rollback some of the changes that were made in in 2013 to address where the gaps are in the program.”

But despite those gaps, the advocates at Tuesday’s press conference said public campaign financing remains the best option for leveling the campaign playing field.

“Wherever we have public financing as the platform to get more candidates with different ideas in front of voters and let voters decide, that’s a good thing,” Evan Preston, state director of ConnPIRG, said, adding that getting rid of the program would be a “dramatic jump backwards. This a platform for more people and more ideas.”