Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, was elected under the system in its maiden year. (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — Connecticut’s current budget crisis should not be used as an excuse to gut the Citizens Election Program, a group of Democratic lawmakers and good government advocates said Tuesday.

Republican legislative leaders eliminated the CEP in the budget proposal they released at the end of April. They are working on revisions to that budget as a result of plummeting revenues.

Tom Swan, executive director of the Connecticut Citizens Action Group, said he feels Republicans are playing games by trying to eliminate the program. But it wasn’t that long ago that Democratic legislative leaders were talking about suspending the program for 2016 to help close a $350 million budget deficit.

“We don’t want to go back to Corrupticut,” Swan said. “Seeing the cost of corruption — we still pay for it today.”

He pointed to the $57 million Connecticut Juvenile Training School, which is slated to close in July 2018. The Department of Children and Families facility was built by William Tomasso, a state contractor whose close ties and gifts led to the resignation of former Republican Gov. John G. Rowland. Rowland eventually plead guilty to a conspiracy charge.

“The cost of John Rowland’s corruption lasts to this day,” Swan said.

In 2005, with Rowland behind bars, the Connecticut General Assembly and former Gov. M. Jodi Rell approved the Citizens Election Program, which allows candidates to raise small donations of between $5 and $100 in order to receive a larger state grant that can be used to help fund their campaign.

Swan said he’s confident Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who was the first candidate in 2010 to qualify for public financing, “will not allow this to be in the final budget process.”

Swan said he’s certain Malloy doesn’t want his legacy — as the first governor ever elected under the system — to include the destruction of the same clean election system.

But Republican lawmakers say it has nothing to do with the clean election system and everything to do with Connecticut’s current fiscal crisis.

“We don’t have the money for it,” House Minority Leader Themis Klarides said Tuesday.

Senate Republican President Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said even though he voted for the program in 2005, the landscape has changed.

“The state cannot keep up with managing funds for a program that is a mere shadow of the original bill and is no longer an effective tool in keeping elections clean as we’ve seen in recent years,” Fasano said. “I voted for and still support the CEP in its original form. If the Democrats were receptive to the reforms Republicans have proposed in the past to restore the CEP’s integrity, then I wouldn’t be suggesting cutting the program now.”

He said he’s open to talking about restoring funding if Democrats were open to closing the loopholes they created in the law over the years.

Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, who served before the Citizens Election Program, said the dynamics of the building changed under the program and there’s no reason the state should consider going back.

Before the CEP there were industry players and lobbyists who were able to bundle campaign contributions and had “major, major influence in all ways and in all debates in this building.”

He said the best example he could give involves school food and drink menus.

“We wanted healthy food for kids in school,” Fleischmann said. “We couldn’t get it through before the clean election system.”

He said when they were finally able to get the healthy school food legislation passed, it was a watershed moment.

“In the end for the first time healthy foods won,” Fleischmann said.

Ending the Citizens Election Program means going back to a system where there is “undue influence by those with money and the power to bundle money for campaigns,” Fleischmann said.

Republicans have also made proposals in the past to reduce the amount of money lawmakers receive for their campaigns.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said by passing the CEP the General Assembly made a promise to its constituents that “they would have the ultimate impact on our elections.”

He said the idea was to be “beholden to the constituents.”

Aresimowicz, who narrowly won his re-election this year by a few hundred votes, said he would not be in favor of going back on that promise.

Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said the Citizens Election Program is more important than the way that they talk about it.

He said when he first ran for office he wasn’t able to run because he had good ideas. He was able to run because there was a system that allowed him to participate.

“This opens up politics to people who don’t have access,” Winfield said.

The measure was passed with bipartisan support. In 2005 it passed 27-8 in the Senate and 82-65 in the House.