Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
HARTFORD, CT — Government watchdogs and a group of Democratic legislators made a passionate plea to save the state’s Citizens’ Election Program from the budget chopping block Tuesday.

The election program was instituted by a pay-to-play scandal that led to the resignation and imprisonment of Gov. John G. Rowland a decade ago, earning Connecticut the nickname “Corrupticut.”

After Rowland went to prison the state created the program to wean candidates off special-interest money and free them from the time required for fundraising. Qualifying candidates must raise $5,000 to $250,000 — depending on the office they are seeking — in $100 increments or less.

The problem is with Connecticut facing a $5 billion budget hole, some of the budget proposals being floated, including those by Republicans and Democrats eliminate or reduce funding for the clean election program.

“I am incredibly unhappy that we have to be here today,” Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause Connecticut said. “With increasing voter anger the last thing state lawmakers should do is take us backwards to the Corrupticut days.”

She added a big benefit of the elections program is, “politicians are spending less time dialing for dollars’’ and more time doing their jobs.

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said he agreed with Quickmire that Tuesday’s press conference shouldn’t be needed.

“The program works. Why are we talking about it? It levels the playing field and it creates transparency,” Steinberg said.

Lindsay Farrell, state director of Connecticut Working Families made a strident plea to save the program.

“Since implementing the CEP, our elections have become more competitive, and primaries are now a more viable way to challenge incumbents. Candidates now come from a more diverse set of backgrounds, no longer needing to be among the wealthy and well-connected in order to compete,” Farrell said.

Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, said it would be a mistake to dump the program and go back to the days when lobbyists and special interests ruled the halls of the state legislature.

“When Connecticut residents feel the system is rigged they’re not wrong,” Lesser said speaking of the political system before the clean elections program was put into place. “The program has been a huge success and a model for the country.” 

Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Danielson agreed.

“I’m proud to stand here in opposition (to eliminating the program); it’s a step backwards,” Flexer said.

She called the current system “a model for the nation.”

“It has put Connecticut on the map for all the right reasons. It was put in place because Connecticut was put on the map for all the wrong reasons,” Flexer continued.

Some lawmakers say, however, the decade-old program does not have enough money to sustain itself. Until now, it has relied on proceeds from the sale of abandoned property and unclaimed bottle deposits to cover the cost of the grants.

The State Elections Enforcement Commission is the nonpartisan agency in charge of the program.

The program is likely to cost between $27.5 million and $39 million for the 2018 elections, which will have candidates for statewide offices and governor, according to Joshua Foley, an elections lawyer for the SEEC.

The program cost the state $28 million in 2010 and $33 million in 2014. In those two years the election field was the same – statewide and governor – as it will be in 2018.

“What makes the number fluctuate is the number of candidates for governor,” Foley said, noting there are a number of candidates, both Republicans and Democrats, who have jumped into the race and have said they will run clean election campaigns.

“Obviously,” Foley added, “the money jumps a bit higher in the gubernatorial races.”

The conversation about the program has administrators worried.

“We’re very concerned,” Michael Brandi, executive director and general counsel of the SEEC said. “It’s going to very, very close even if nothing is swept in the budget. If anything is swept, then it would negatively impact our ability to award CEP grants in 2018,” Brandi said.

Pat O’Neil, a spokesman for the House Republicans, said he found it “ironic” that Democrats held a press conference calling for saving a program that also faces a reduction in funding in their budget.

House Democrats would reduce funding to the program by $5 million per year.

Asked about that fact at the press conference, Democrats in attendance said they would ensure money for the program would be protected under whatever final budget eventually is passed.

But Republican legislators were skeptical.

“It’s a great sound bite for them (Democrats),” Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford said, to come out in support of saving the clean elections program.

“But the reality is the state should not be funding elections to the tune of $40 million, for things like campaign stickers. That isn’t where our priorities should be right now. We simply can’t afford it,” Candelora said.

He said it shouldn’t be overlooked that in the decade that the program has been in place that Republicans have gained far more General Assembly seats.

“Beyond that,” Candelora added, “just because we stop funding the program doesn’t mean we can’t put a program in its place leaving limitations as to how much private funding can be raised.”

On June 22, 22 “pro-democracy” groups sent a letter to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy asking him to preserve the program.

“There are difficult choices that must be made regarding the budget this year, but safeguarding the integrity of our state’s elections is not one of them,” the groups wrote. “Defunding this program just 17 months before the next election will give wealthy interests more influence in Connecticut elections and make it harder for regular people to be heard. We’re counting on you to fight to fully fund this program in the state budget.”