Hugh McQuaid photo
Sen. Len Fasano (Hugh McQuaid photo)

Republican lawmakers called Thursday for reducing the amount of money that flows into publicly financed campaigns and giving regulators more tools to investigate abuses.

The proposals are directed at the state’s Citizens Election Program, which provides taxpayer-funded grants to qualified state candidates. The legislature created the program in 2005 in an effort to eliminate the influence of special interest money on candidates.

“It was a deal — give us the taxpayers’ money and we’re going to give you clean elections, rid of all special interests,” Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano said at a Hartford press conference. “Now we’re in a different stage of the program and in my view, and I’ll speak for myself, if we don’t fix this we should get rid of this.”

Fasano and House Minority Leader Themis Klarides detailed a timeline of changes the legislature’s majority Democrats have made to the law over the years. They said those changes have eroded its effectiveness as a clean elections program.

Lawmakers made the most significant alteration in 2013 when they 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 bill was motivated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, which lifted restrictions on corporate spending on elections.

The bill was a “deathblow to the Citizens Election Program,” Republicans said Thursday. They proposed scaling back the 2013 law by capping the amount of money a party can spend on a candidate and cutting the contributions an individual can make to a political party in half.

They also are proposing to reduce the grants awarded under the program by 25 percent and prohibiting unopposed candidates from receiving public financing.

“In 2014, we spent over $33 million to fund elections,” Klarides said. “. . . We believe that the amount we have to spend is too much. It’s a cost savings but the point is how much do we need? How much is enough?”

The Democratic Party made news several times during the 2014 election cycle for using loopholes in the law to assist its candidates. The party contributed 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.

In another instance, the party used its federal account to pay for mailers supporting Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, effectively bypassing a ban on state contractor contributions in state elections. Election regulators at the State Election Enforcement Commission are investigating a complaint based on that issue.

Although the press conference was a partisan event attended by more than a dozen Republican legislators, some of the ideas they presented may have support on the other side of the aisle.

In December, House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said the legislature should think about scaling back the 2013 law.

“I think if the state party is allowed to accept contributions and then distribute out, at will, whatever money they bring in to individual candidates, I think that damages the credibility of what we all commit to doing if we sign up for the public financing system,” Sharkey said.

But on Thursday, Sharkey released a statement suggesting Republicans were only interested in campaign reform “when they perceive a potential political advantage.”

“Some of this actually sounds familiar to me, but before the Republicans go running to the cameras I wish they would talk to the chairs of the Elections Committee and work on these issues on a bipartisan basis,” he said.

Senate President Martin Looney defended the party’s spending flexibility as necessary as a result of the Citizens United decision and another court decision which invalidated a provision in Connecticut’s law designed to trigger additional funds for publicly financed candidates if they were outspent by privately financed opponents.

Looney points to the 2012 election, when a PAC funded by a billionaire from Greenwich dumped money into several state senate races at the last minute and opposed the re-election of sitting Democrats. Although, each of the incumbents prevailed, Looney said the incident was a “sign of things to come.”

“I understand Republicans virtually ignored the fact that Citizens United happened and was the precipitating event for our changes. We had a pristine system that was really undermined,” he said. “We are dealing with a world that is vastly different than it was before those Supreme Court decisions.”

Fasano said the 2012 expenditures were not effective in defeating the incumbent senators.

“History has shown in Connecticut . . .  money doesn’t necessarily control the race,” he said. “It’s really boiling down to the candidate, not the money.”

Republicans also are seeking to authorize an independent counsel position for election regulators. The proposal stems from an unsuccessful effort by Republicans to obtain a court injunction to prevent Democrats from using its federal account to support Malloy.

Republicans tried to involve the State Elections Enforcement Commission in the case but the regulators refused through a lawyer from the Attorney General’s Office. Fasano suggested the SEEC may have supported a court-ordered injunction if they had an independent lawyer.