Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, used the program in its inaugural year (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — A handful of lawmakers, state officials, and advocates rallied against sections in the Republican budget that would eliminate Connecticut’s landmark clean elections program.

During a more than half-hour Legislative Office Building press conference Tuesday, proponents of the program argued it’s not about taxpayers footing the bill for campaign stickers or lawn signs, it’s about stopping corrupting influences from donating to campaigns.

As budget negotiations move forward, Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said he would veto the Republican budget that includes the elimination of the program, but advocates Tuesday said they want to make sure the Citizens Election Program is preserved in any future budget proposals. Candidates from both major parties have used the program to fund their campaigns.

As far as the Republican budget is concerned, no party has an unblemished record when it comes to money in politics, but “this is a horse of a different color,” Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, said.

He said the Republican budget included “the complete gutting of all our clean election laws in the state, tripling the amount that corporations can give to candidates, and dramatically expanding what special interests can do to corrupt the process.”

Lesser said this is a “transformative and frankly profoundly disturbing proposal.”

He said the Republican budget removes language that would make it illegal to embezzle Citizen Election Program funds.

“That’s not just prospectively. That’s retrospectively too,” Lesser said.

He said he wrote the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the State Elections Enforcement Commission to see if the proposal would impact any current investigations.

Eliminating the program would save the state $23.4 million in 2018 and $11.4 million in 2019.

Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, in defense of the budget Friday night on the House floor, said they want good governance and they want democracy in action, but “unfortunately with a $5 billion budget deficit this was one of the choices we had to make.”

Carlos Moreno, interim executive director of the Connecticut Working Families Party, said the Citizens Election Program represents “one ten thousandth of a percent” of the state budget. He said the meager savings would “result in long-term costs both fiscally and ethically.” He said it would signal a return to pay-to-play politics.

Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, said the Citizens Election Program hasn’t only changed who can run for office in Connecticut, it’s changed how the state Capitol functions. Lawmakers feel they are able to focus more on their constituents, while paying less attention to special interests.

“It’s taken the power away from lobbyists and special interests and put it back in the hands of the people,” Flexer said.

Connecticut’s General Assembly was able to approve the system on a bipartisan basis in 2005 after former Republican Gov. John G. Rowland was sent to prison on corruption charges. Former Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who succeeded Rowland, signed it into law.

Flexer called Connecticut’s clean election system a “beaming light of hope for the nation.”

Sen. Andrew Fleischmann, a West Hartford Democrat who voted for the program, said the law is not just about elections, “it’s about how state government operates.” He said the legislature wasn’t able to pass legislation eliminating junk food in schools until the clean elections program was instituted.

“Big food, big beverages were opposed,” Fleischmann said. “And we could not seem to get forward movement” until after the clean elections system was approved.

But the Democratic budget proposal also would have made changes to the Citizens Election Program. It proposed ending investigations if the State Elections Enforcement Commission was unable to finish it within a year, and would have reduced the grants for certain candidates.

Flexer said she had drafted amendments to remove those proposals from the Democratic budget proposal, but was not given an opportunity to debate them after the Republican budget was approved.

Martin Mador, legislative and political chair for the Sierra Club, said the staff at the SEEC has been reduced and they don’t have the manpower to complete all investigations in a timely manner.

He said it would essentially give some people a “free pass” to do something they shouldn’t be allowed to do under the program, and “is not good public policy.”

Investigations as far back as 2012 are still open, including the 2014 complaint filed against Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr.

The State Elections Enforcement Commission opened an investigation into allegations that some of Kennedy’s friends and family contributed to the Democratic Party, and in return the party gave Kennedy’s campaign an additional $207,000 to use against Republican candidate Bruce Wilson. The investigation is still ongoing. In the meantime, Wilson lost again to Kennedy in 2016.

There are 134 cases currently open and under investigation, according to the SEEC.