In an attempt to reach a compromise with their colleagues in the House, the Senate Democratic caucus modified a campaign finance bill Monday.
The bill, which seeks to correct some problems created by the 2013 campaign finance package, will now cap the amount of money a state party can spend on a publicly-financed House or Senate candidate at $250,000. The amount a party can spend on a gubernatorial or constitutional candidate would still be unlimited, under the bill, leaving some members on the General Administration and Elections Committee scratching their head at the impact of the legislation.
State Rep. David Alexander, D-Enfield, said $250,000 for a state Senate or House race is “too high” and more than a candidate would need to get their message out.
“I think this is out of control,” Alexander said.
It’s more money than the Democratic Party gave to Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr. in the 2014 election. Democrats gave Kennedy about $207,000 because some in the party feared that, because of his name recognition and family ties, he would be the target of outside spending. But that scenario never happened.
Changes to the campaign finance laws were last made in 2013, a year after an outside group funded by a Greenwich millionaire spent money in an attempt to defeat Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, who now chairs the Government Administration and Elections Committee.
Cassano survived the last-minute ad blitz and won his election that year, but it got the Senate Democratic caucus thinking about what happens if an outside group is able to come in and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat a candidate just days before the election. Their answer was to allow state parties to donate money to these clean election candidates to counter any outside spending.
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, submitted written testimony asking the committee to consider limiting the amount a party can give a clean election candidate to 25 percent of their clean election grant.
“Allowing these committees to spend an infinite amount of money on behalf of candidates is both irresponsible and further eviscerates our model Citizens’ Election Program,” Sharkey wrote in his testimony to the committee.
Republican lawmakers proposed capping it at $250,000 for gubernatorial candidates, $75,000 for constitutional candidates, $10,000 for Senate candidates, and $3,500 for House candidates.
Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, said he’s “confused and perplexed” as to why the limits on how much a party can donate to a clean election candidate were eliminated in 2013. Republican leaders were also unhappy with the $250,000 cap, which they believe is too high.
“The $250,000 cap is so absurdly high that it will do very little to curb the problematic spending we’ve witnessed and warned of,” Senate Republican leader Len Fasano and House Republican leader Themis Klarides said in a statement Tuesday.
During debate on the bill Monday, McLachlan said he continues to hear about Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United and how it’s changed campaign finance, but little of that money has found its way to Connecticut. There was one donation for $1.17 million from an Ohio-based group that was made to the Republican Governors Association PAC in support of Foley. But that was the only so-called “dark” contribution where there’s no information about the donors to that organization.
“We’re blaming all these problems on one expenditure that couldn’t be identified,” McLachlan said.
He said most of the money spent on the governor’s race in 2014 was from the Democratic and Republican Governors Association. Those donations were mostly made, according to McLachlan, by local people with “local links.”
McLachlan’s amendment to return the campaign laws to the way they were before 2013 was defeated along party lines even though several Democratic lawmakers voiced their support for it.
The bill now goes to the Senate.