Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — The House passed a bill Thursday on a 79-70, party line vote that would change campaign laws and could set the state up for a constitutional challenge.

The bill would limit to $70,000 the amount of money individuals, corporations, or organizations could give to independent expenditure groups participating in Connecticut’s elections. It would also prohibit foreign nationals from making contributions and require a greater degree of disclosure on the part of individuals and corporations, including shareholders, making those donations.

In an effort to avoid a constitutional challenge, the bill doesn’t limit the amount of spending those Super PACs or independent expenditure groups can do in favor of or against a candidate.

The bill also requires the governing board, if any, of an organization planning to spend more than $10,000 on a campaign to vote on that “campaign-related disbursement” and to make that information available on its website within 48 hours. The bill also asks for more information about the individuals making contributions and more information about the shareholders.

During the six hours of debate Republicans offered seven amendments, all of which failed, but they didn’t prolong debate. One of the Republican amendments would have eliminated the public election program grant for candidates running unopposed.

The bill was amended, however, when Republicans discovered that there was no fiscal note included with language that would have placed a one-year limit on the length of investigations by the State Elections Enforcement Commission into allegations of campaign violations. The commission has only a few investigative attorneys and would need more in order to handle the typical number of complaints in each election cycle within one year.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said the approved bill doesn’t represent any comprehensive reforms.

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Rep. Dan Fox, D-Stamford, (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

“The majority party has systematically mangled the so-called ‘clean election’ laws they so fiercely endorsed for years, and this latest effort does nothing to make both sides play by the same transparent rules,’’ Klarides said.

Many lawmakers expressed frustration with the legislation.

Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, said the legislation doesn’t address the problems with the Citizens Election Program or any of the issues in recent years, including one that resulted in the State Elections Enforcement Commission levying its largest fine to date.

“We’re not addressing the major issues we have with campaign finance with this state,” Dubitsky said. “…What does this bill actually do?”

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, made reforming Connecticut clean election laws an issue on the campaign trail after an independent expenditure group backed by a labor union made an offensive advertising buy on behalf of a state representative. The ad had the opposite effect and helped get her opponent elected.

Admittedly, there’s nothing in the legislation that would have changed how the spending occurred in that race.

“We genuinely believe the court got it wrong with Citizens United,” Aresimowicz said, referring to the federal lawsuit that allowed for independent expenditure groups to participate in Connecticut’s elections.

Citizens United was the Supreme Court decision that eliminated a ban on independent expenditures and allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on candidates.

Republicans and other officials argued that there is bound to be a constitutional challenge to the new $70,000 contribution limit included in the bill.

“We believe the legislation before us is constitutional and will withstand any challenge,” Rep. Dan Fox, D-Stamford, said.

There’s a gray area of law regarding contributions, but a brighter line on how the money can be spent, according to Fox.

“We wanted disclosure for everybody,” Aresimowicz said.

Aresimowicz said the legislation prevents folks from dumping a whole lot of money into a race without knowing which entities or individuals gave to the group campaigning for or against a candidate.

With this bill “you’re not going to see the Koch Brothers dump $20 million into the next gubernatorial race in the state of Connecticut,” Aresimowicz said.

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 greater disclosure by the Republican State Leadership Committee.

Republicans argued that Democrats are trying to peel away the layers of an onion to find information that already exists. If that information wasn’t there then there wouldn’t be news articles about the donors to the Republican State Leadership Committee.

Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, said the 72 seats Republicans were able to secure in the House weren’t the result of more money from outside groups being spent on campaigns.

“It resulted because people have had it,” Devlin said.

Liz Kurantowicz, founder of Grow Connecticut, agreed.

“Until Democrats in Connecticut stop supporting higher taxes, more spending, job killing policies they’re going to continue losing elections,” Kurantowicz said. “House and Senate Republicans ran great candidates with great campaigns that have the right message, and until Democrats change their policies Republicans will continue to gain momentum in Connecticut.”

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House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

In 2018, the Republican and Democratic Governors Associations, which spent millions on the 2014 race, would be limited in their ability to spend if this bill becomes law.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said he learned from his political science professor that no matter how campaign laws are structured money will continue to find its way into the system.

“Like the ocean, it is relentless,” Ritter said.

He said what the legislation they passed along party lines Thursday tries to address is who is behind that money.

He said he doesn’t understand why there’s so much concern about regulating information about who gives.

“We have a legitimate interest in regulating contributions,” Ritter said.

He said if they don’t change the system now then they run the risk of destroying it because it will force candidates to fight with one arm tied behind their back.

Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause Connecticut, praised the House for passing the legislation.

“It limits foreign interference in our elections and brings much of the dirty, secret money enabled by the Citizens United ruling, out of the shadows,” Quickmire said.

The Yankee Institute of Connecticut, a 501c3 organization that would not be impacted by the legislation or required to disclose its donors, said they are opposing it on principle because the legislation chills First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly, and it cannot be allowed to pass the Senate.

The fate of the legislation in the Senate is unknown at the moment. The Senate has not caucused the legislation. Aresimowicz said he’s been working with the Senate. However, Senate Republican President Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said he was never consulted about the bill.