HARTFORD, CT — (Updated 8 p.m.) House Democratic leadership Monday vowed to continue its mission to increase disclosure and limit outside money being spent on Connecticut elections.
The General Administration and Elections Committee approved, along party lines, a bill that would cap the amount of money these independent expenditure committees can receive, bar foreign influenced entities from contributing or making any expenditures, and increase disclosure of those contributing.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, lent the bill his support at a press conference Monday morning.
Under the legislation, the amount an outside group would be able to contribute to an independent expenditure group would be capped at $70,000 annually. However, the independent expenditure groups would still be able to make unlimited contributions to clean election candidates, House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said.
Given past Supreme Court decisions, it’s possible a cap on contributions to independent expenditure groups could face legal challenges.
Aresimowicz said the language in the bill may be ripe for court challenges, but they believe the court got it wrong in a couple cases dealing with campaign spending and corporations.
“If some of the individual aspects of this bill are challenged in court we’re all for it,” Aresimowicz said. “We’re going to pass the strongest bill that we think is necessary to protect our elections and our citizens here in the state of Connecticut.”
Aresimowicz’s legal counsel, James Spallone, said $70,000 was what they felt would be “defensible” if it was challenged in court.
In 2016, independent expenditure groups spent more than $1.4 million on more than a dozen General Assembly seats.
The election resulted in Republicans picking up 8 seats in the House and drawing even with Democrats in the Senate.
In late October, Aresimowicz decried independent expenditures made by a labor group on ads targeting Dr. William A. Petit Jr.
At the time, Aresimowicz, who works for AFSCME Council 4, said he understands the Supreme Court decision makes those expenditures legal, but it causes the constituents in the district to lose their voice when large corporations and labor unions can say things that are inconsistent with what the constituents want.
“We should not allow it,” Aresimowicz said. “Regardless of who is doing it.”
However, the bill being proposed by Democratic leadership would not have changed anything about how that money was spent in most situations, including the objectionable and roundly criticized ad buy made by Labor United for Connecticut.
The bill could change things for some independent expenditure groups, including the Democratic Governors Association and Republican Governors Association.
In 2016, Grow Connecticut, a Republican-funded organization, spent $350,000 on a digital ad campaign and cable television ads targeting three Senate races and 10 House races. The largest donor to the organization was the Republican State Leadership Committee, which is a national 527 group that receives donations from thousands of donors, including Wal-Mart, Koch Industries, and Pfizer. A “527” group is an organization that can raise unlimited funds from individuals, corporations, or labor unions, but which must register with the IRS and disclose their contributions and expenditures.
This legislation, if approved by the full General Assembly, would cap the amount of money the Republican State Leadership Committee could give to Grow Connecticut and it would require the group to disclose its top five donors.
Liz Kurantowicz, founder of Grow Connecticut, said she will follow the law, whatever the law ends up being.
At the same time, she said she’s not surprised the “Democrats want to limit free speech,” which is what she said this bill would do by limiting the amount of money outside groups could contribute. She said its amusing that Democrats want to limit some free speech, but not the so-called organizational spending their Political Action Committees, leadership committees, and party does on their behalf.
She wondered what Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy thinks about the legislation, since he hasn’t made a decision yet about whether to seek re-election and in 2014 the DGA spent millions of dollars on the race.
Kelly Donnelly, a spokeswoman for Malloy, said they are reviewing the bill and will continue to follow as it progresses through the legislative session.
In 2014, if the bill Democrats were touting Monday was in place, it would have required an Ohio nonprofit called A Public Voice Inc. to disclose its top five donors to Grow Connecticut. The group gave $1.17 million to Grow Connecticut to help pay for advertisements for Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley. Under the bill being pitched by Democrats, the amount of money it could give would be capped at $70,000.
Spallone said like the federal Disclose Act, the Connecticut bill tries to get at some of these “nesting dolls” and figure out who is behind some of these contributions.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said the Democratic approach to campaign finance disclosure ignores other organizations such as political action committees held by legislative leadership.
“There should be greater disclosure throughout the campaign finance system,” Klarides said. “But the funneling of money raised right here at home into targeted races that have already received maximum contributions under the law is an obvious attempt to get around the intent of the reforms.
In the lead up to the 2016 election, the so-called organizational expenditures Klarides complains about totaled about $712,000, which is less than the $1.4 million in independent expenditures and much less than the $11.4 million on clean election grants.
“There’s work to be done on the bill to make sure that its new disclosure requirements fit seamlessly into the state’s existing disclosure regime, and Common Cause Connecticut looks forward to working with the bill’s sponsors to fine-tune and strengthen this important legislation,” Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause in Connecticut, said.
Michael Brandi, executive director of the State Elections Enforcement Commission, said the bill aims to strengthen disclosure laws and “address the flow of money being spent on independent expenditures.”
He said they support both of those goals and look forward to working on improving the bill.