Christine Stuart photo
Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown (Christine Stuart photo)

By the end of the day Thursday, both House and Senate Democrats who proposed suspending Connecticut’s landmark public financing system in 2016, had withdrawn their proposals.

Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, made the announcement early Thursday afternoon and House Speaker Brendan Sharkey and Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz agreed to find the money elsewhere later Thursday afternoon. The news of the reversal came part way through a press conference held by ConnPIRG, Common Cause, lawmakers and other defenders of the clean election system.

The Democratic caucus was under pressure from its own members and prominent Republicans like former Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who signed the landmark legislation into law.

“I am profoundly disappointed that legislative Democrats would turn aside, through budget cuts, the public campaign financing program many of us worked so hard to put in place to prevent political corruption scandals,” Rell said in a statement.

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.

Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, who spoke at the press conference in support of the program, said he overheard a staffer telling someone that the problem with clean elections is that it doesn’t have a constituency.

If that was true, Lesser said his phone wouldn’t have been ringing off the hook this week.

“The voters of this state expect more from Hartford and they look at this program as one of things we can all be proud of.” Lesser said.

Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, said getting rid of clean elections is a bad idea.

“There are some in this building who will tell you they think this might be good politics, but I think many of us standing up here and in this building can agree that it is not good government,” Scanlon said.

In 2004, the last election held before the public system was implemented the average raised for the state Senate seat was $171,000 with inflation that’s $213,000, according to Scanlon. A House seat cost on average $63,000 and with inflation that’s $78,000.

Today, lawmakers using the program have to raise $5,000 if they’re running for a House seat and $15,000 for a Senate seat. They then receive a public grant of $27,850 for House races and $94,690 for Senate races.

That means they get to spend most of their time talking to voters without worrying about fundraising.

Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield, said it’s “liberating to know I’m accountable to the same folks who choose to vote me into office.”

Connecticut is the only state where public financing was approved by a state legislature. There are public financing systems in a half dozen states and municipalities, but most have passed by referendum.

Tom Swan, executive director of the Connecticut Citizens Action Group, said while they are happy the program was spared the budget axe they will remain vigilant.

But with any system it’s not perfect.

“The Democrats have effectively eviscerated the spirit of the law since 2011 and now they are looking to overturn the actual letter of the law altogether,” Rell said in her statement.

The legislature’s Democratic majority made several changes to the law since it was passed. The latest in 2013 allowed state parties to give unlimited amounts of money to clean election candidates. The argument from those in favor of the change was that a clean election candidate wouldn’t be able to respond if money from a super PAC was spent in their race because they wouldn’t be able to raise more to match it. 

Regardless of those changes, Swan said public financing “will continue to make a difference.”

Lesser said there are problems with the campaign finance laws he believes should be fixed, but ending the program or suspending it doesn’t resolve them.

“This program works, it continues to work, even with the presence of outside money,” Lesser said.

Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Connecticut’s Common Cause chapter, said voters across the country and in Connecticut want to know candidates are listening to them and not “big money.”

She said there are things that need to be fixed, but “we think the basic model is still viable and is still something we should be utilizing.”

Evan Preston, ConnPIRG state director, said just because there’s a hole in the boat doesn’t mean you have to sink to the bottom of the ocean and scrap the program.

He called the argument “ludicrous” and said policy ideas, like GMO labeling, have come before the legislature because politics has not been dominated by special interests.