HARTFORD, CT—The federal investigation ended with no charges being brought, but Connecticut’s election regulators are trying to quickly close a loophole that allows banned state contractors to give money to publicly financed candidates.
The State Elections Enforcement Commission is seeking to erase the gray area that exists between state and federal election law with a legislative proposal that restricts the amount of money a state party can receive from its federal account.
State contractors, who are banned from giving to state candidates participating in the Citizens Election Program, can give money to the Republican and Democratic Party’s federal account, which is used to fund Congressional campaigns and get-out-the-vote efforts.
“Because one party account may accept state contractor contributions and another cannot,
the law must be clear on the roles of each,” the SEEC explained in a memo regarding its legislative proposal.
But Republican Party Chairman JR Romano has asked why his party should be punished for something the Democratic Party did.
During the 2014 election cycle the Connecticut Democratic Party used its federal account for expenditures on behalf of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s re-election bid because the mailers also included a get-out-the-vote message. The Democratic Party through its attorney David Golub argued that it had to because of that get-out-the-vote message.
The Republican Party filed a complaint with election regulators, who then sought to subpoena information about the decision to spend the money in the last month of the 2014 campaign. The Democratic Party appealed the release of the the documents to Superior Court before it eventually agreed to settle the complaint in June 2016 and agreed to pay a $325,000 fine to the SEEC for seeking to circumvent the state’s clean election laws.
As part of that settlement, the Democratic Party and the SEEC agreed it was possible to comply with state and federal law through the use of a compliant account.
Since the Republican Party is not part of that settlement there’s nothing to say they couldn’t use the same loophole the Democratic Party used in 2014 to funnel money to clean election candidates.
The legislation proposed by the SEEC would require both parties to use the compliant account option.
The proposal also combats dark money in Connecticut by revealing persons behind political committees and persons behind the contributors to those committees and incidental independent spenders.
While there hasn’t been a lot of dark money used in Connecticut, there’s been an increase in the use of independent expenditures, which has been a concern mostly for the Democratic majority.
In early November, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said his caucus would seek to increase the amount of disclosure required for independent expenditures.
“The amount of money that’s pouring into the state of Connecticut is drowning out the voice of the voters,” Aresimowicz has said.
In early November there has been about $1.38 million spent by outside independent expenditure groups. That’s less than the $11.4 million spent on clean election grants, but more than the $712,000 in organizational expenditures reported so far by parties and leadership PACs.
Republicans, who benefited from a majority of the independent expenditures, were able to pick up eight seats in the House and three in the Senate.
But they realize it might not always be that way. Republican Senators have also proposed legislation to increase the transparency of independent expenditures. They also introduced legislation that would ban state contractors from contributing to a state party’s federal account.
Meanwhile, the SEEC is also preparing for the 2018 election and asking lawmakers to consider a supplemental grant for candidates in the gubernatorial race “where high spending and independent expenditures have consistently been a factor.”
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a trigger provision that would allow clean election candidates to raise additional funds in 2011. Connecticut had trigger provisions in its law back in 2010, but the law was rewritten a year later in order to comply with the court ruling.
The SEEC is asking lawmakers to restore a trigger provision.
“We are asking you to consider a hybrid matching funds program that would restore access to the three million in grant moneys that used to be available to Gubernatorial candidates facing negative independent expenditures. We are also proposing an adjustment to the organization expenditure limits to address the loss of funds to General Assembly candidates,” the SEEC memo states.
Other legislation would also seek to limit the amount of money a national party can give to a state party. The proposal is to cap it at $100,000.
“Although there are currently few donations from national accounts into the Connecticut system, federal legislation passed recently greatly increased donation limits by individuals including Connecticut state contractors to these national accounts and may make the national account donations a problem for the CEP,” the SEEC said in its memo to lawmakers.
The General Administration and Elections Committee is expected to debate the proposals over the next few weeks. A forum on the Connecticut’s clean election system was canceled last Friday due to the snow.