This week Democratic leaders floated the possibility of suspending public financing of campaigns as a way to close the current budget gap. Even though they backed down under pressure, it’s just one more sign that the vital and necessary campaign finance reform laws passed after Gov. John G. Rowland’s resignation are being eroded down to nothing.
Legislative leaders are trying to hammer out some kind of way to balance a budget that is increasingly in the red, and one of the ideas that Democrats suggested was to suspend the Citizens’ Election Program, which publicly finances campaigns for state offices and the legislature, for the 2016 cycle. They were eventually forced to reverse course after young legislators protested the move and former Gov. M. Jodi Rell resurfaced to shake her finger at them, which is a relief.
However, it doesn’t change the fact that Democrats, once the champions of campaign finance reform, have been undermining the spirit and intent of those reforms for years.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was the first governor elected using the public finance system, but that was before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and other court cases unleashed a tidal wave of untraceable money into elections through so-called “SuperPACs.” Money at the federal level suddenly could flow a lot more freely, and Democrats, as usual, panicked that Republicans were about to drown them in cash.
That’s one of the reasons why they began to chip away at protections here in Connecticut. In 2013 the legislature loosened campaign finance rules in order to allow higher-dollar donations to the state party, and Malloy vetoed a bill that would have forced corporations and independent groups to disclose donors when running ads.
In 2015, Republicans actually tried to make it more difficult for the state parties to raise and spend money, but after the measure passed with bipartisan support in the House it died in the Senate.
But it’s not just about what the legislature is doing. In 2013 the CEO of Northeast Utilities, now Eversource Energy, sent an email to employees “inviting” them to support Gov. Malloy’s re-election by donating money. Republicans cried foul, but because the email suggested donating to the state Democratic Party’s federal account and not their state account, it wasn’t technically illegal. The State Elections Enforcement Commission was forced to drop the matter, but not before scolding Democrats. They concluded that, while legal, the solicitation was “. . .both offensive and disturbing and violates the spirit and intent of the Connecticut state contractor ban.”
And then there’s the mailer mess. The SEEC and the Democratic Party are