The legislature’s Democratic majority released a proposal Monday to close a $350 million budget shortfall by, among other things, suspending Connecticut’s landmark campaign finance system for the 2016 election cycle.
The suspension of the program would only help close $11.7 million of the $350 million to $370 million budget gap.
But Michael Brandi, the head of the State Elections Enforcement Commission, said the one cycle suspension would start the “death spiral” for the program.
“The CEF has been a huge success and this move would put it on life support if not kill it entirely,” Brandi said in a statement. “It will not leave the fund enough money to fund the 2018 elections — so this is not a one-time suspension, it’s a permanent weakening, that will likely result in a death spiral — and it will return all of our elected officials to the culture of soliciting special interest money to fund their campaigns. This is not what the citizens of Connecticut signed up for when the Citizens’ Election Fund was created.”
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said in theory they could revert back to the old 2005 system or they could impose limits on how much money a candidate could raise. The only catch is that the money would have to be raised through private sources without a public grant.
“That’s all subject to further discussion and negotiation,” Sharkey said.
The Citizens Election Program was implemented following the resignation of former Gov. John G. Rowland, who went to jail for taking gifts from state contractors.
“Make no mistake, we all pay the price when we turn government over to lobbyists and wealthy special interests,” Karen Hobert-Flynn, senior vice president of Common Cause said Monday. “At a time when upwards of 90 percent of voters in both major parties say money in politics is a problem, Connecticut Democrats are going backwards toward corruption and the era of John Rowland.”
Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Connecticut’s Common Cause chapter who has championed the clean election program, called the cut a “bad idea.”
“It’s a short sighted idea, especially at a point where less than two weeks ago voters in Maine and Seattle voted to enact programs like ours,” Quickmire said.
Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of Every Voice Center, who lived for 30 years in Connecticut and worked on passage of the Citizens’ Election Program in 2005, said “This decision would make politicians more accountable to big donors and less to ordinary citizens. Democrats and Republicans alike should demand this proposal be withdrawn.”
Republican lawmakers suggested trimming the grants candidates receive under the program by 20 percent to save $2.2 million in 2016 and $6.6 million in 2017.
The program allows candidates to raise small amounts of money in order to qualify for a larger state grant to conduct their campaign. State representative candidates had to raise $5,000 in donations under $100 in 2014 in order to qualify for a $27,850 grant, and a state senate candidate had to raise $15,000, also in donations under $100, in order to qualify for a $94,690 grant.
Sharkey said suspending the program for a year wasn’t his first choice, but it was an idea that was raised by his caucus and it’s an idea that seems to have some bipartisan support.
“Suspension for state legislative elections made sense,” Sharkey said. “It will give us opportunity to reconfigure the program and make it more effective without having to make some of these other patches.”
In addition to scrapping the Citizens Election Program, the Democratic budget proposal restores about $34 million of the $63.5 million that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy cut from hospitals in September.
The Democrats would also give the governor the power to find an additional $89.1 million in savings while the Republican budget proposal gives the governor the power to find an additional $93 million in savings.
The Democratic budget proposal also delays the transfer of sales taxes to the special transportation fund for two months and transfers of the sales tax revenue to the Municipal Revenue Sharing Account for a month.
Delaying those programs goes after one of Malloy’s biggest initiatives and one of the Democrats’ biggest initiatives as well. The money in the Municipal Revenue Sharing Account will be used starting in July 2016 to lower the mill rate for motor vehicle owners mostly in large urban areas. The Democrats have touted the initiative as “property tax relief.”
A spokesman for the Senate Democrats said the delay will maintain the “integrity” of the program, while helping to close the immediate budget gap.
The Democratic budget proposal released by email Monday afternoon also used $35 million of the rainy day fund to close the budget gap.
“Our plan makes the spending cuts necessary to bring the budget back in balance, and also begins to make some long term structural reforms, such as improving the business tax climate,” Sharkey said in a press release. “At the same time we sustain the critical services thousands of families depend upon each day, and preserve the much needed property tax relief provided in the original budget.”
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the decision to restore some funding to the hospitals and developmental services “represents a preservation of our Democratic priorities, to maintain critical services and protect our most vulnerable residents.”
The Republicans, who are at the budget negotiating table for the first time in several years, released their proposal last week. The proposal relies mostly on sweeping money from the Municipal Revenue Sharing Account and a retirement incentive program for state employees.
“There are a number of areas where this plan is similar to the Republican proposal that we presented last week which is encouraging,” House Minority Leader Themis Klarides said. “It appears to recognize that there are necessary cuts in spending that have to be made.”