Republican lawmakers said a Senate Democratic proposal to change campaign finance laws breaks a promise they made to the state 10 years ago when they established the clean election system.
The promise to taxpayers was that “if you subsidize and pay for these elections we promise you sunshine and clean elections,” House Republican leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said Thursday at a Capitol press conference. She said the piece of legislation that will receive a public hearing Friday “does none of that.”
Following the 2014 campaign, during which the state parties were able to contribute unlimited amounts of money to publicly-funded candidates — specific examples include Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr. and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy — Republicans and some Democrats called for changes. But Klarides said the bill the General Administration and Elections Committee will debate Friday includes no changes to how state parties interact with publicly-funded candidates.
In December, both Klarides and House Speaker Brendan Sharkey agreed it was an issue they wanted to explore during the legislative session.
“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 during a Dec. 4 webcast by the CTMirror.
Klarides said the 41-page bill also doesn’t address the issue of how much an individual donor can give to the state parties. In 2013, the limit was increased from $5,000 to $10,000 per person and there has been discussion around the capitol about lowering the amount.
She said they also want to stop state contractor funds from being used in state races, “which was one of the hallmarks, one of the hallmarks of the clean election proposals.” Klarides is referring to the Democratic Party’s decision to use funds from its federal election account, which was accepting contributions from state contractors, to distribute a mailer featuring Malloy. That matter is still being investigated by the state Elections Enforcement Commission.
Klarides said they also sought to eliminate public grants to unopposed candidates, which was included in the Democratic bill that will be debated Friday, “but not to the extent we believe it should be.” In the bill, unopposed candidates will receive 20 percent of the public grant.
The bill would prohibit regulators from auditing a campaign if the same candidate’s campaign was audited during the previous cycle. Senate Republican leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, disagreed with that change, and said those audits should remain random regardless of any previous history of audits.
Otherwise, Fasano said, candidates would be tempted to misspend their public funds in a cycle following an audit because they know regulators would not be auditing them.
“It raises questions about whether Connecticut is running a clean campaign as we promised them,” Fasano said.
A spokesman for the Senate Democratic caucus said the bill “strengthens Connecticut’s campaign finance law by restricting coordination with independent expenditures, improves transparency by expanding disclosure requirements, and works to preserve a law that has been under assault since the Citizens United decision.”
But Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, said Citizens United isn’t addressed in this legislation. He said the bill is just creating a whole bunch of new loopholes in the state’s clean election laws.
“Instead of looking at the loopholes, we’re focused on Citizens United, which I think is frankly irrelevant in this discussion,” McLachlan said.
State Senators were concerned two years ago when an outside group funded by a Greenwich millionaire spent money on a campaign seeking their defeat. They survived the last-minute ad blitz, but decided there had to be a way to counter outside spending in the clean election system. In 2013, they drafted legislation that allowed the state parties to give money to their campaigns so they could respond to last-minute attacks. Some lawmakers feel the response, which allowed state parties to spend unlimited amounts of money, was too heavy handed.
A spokesman for Sharkey said he is still worried about organizational expenditures and will be testifying on the legislation Friday. But even with the speaker’s support the Republicans and clean election advocates like Common Cause face still opposition from the Senate Democratic caucus.
The legislation up for a public hearing Friday redefines “independent expenditures” from these outside groups or PACs and gives candidates a longer time to coordinate their campaigns with outside entities without penalty.