HARTFORD, CT — While the landmark Citizens Election Program was saved when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy vetoed the Republican budget that was passed with the help of eight Democratic legislators, proponents know it will continue to be a target for budget cuts.
A day after Malloy vetoed the budget, the State Elections Enforcement Commission wrote legislative leaders to remind them the “CEP costs very little in comparison to the potential costs of corruption and the liberation that public financing affords lawmakers, like you, who are more interested in doing what is right instead of what a big donor may think is best.”
They said the budget debate has proved that legislators are voting based on what they think is best for their constituents and “not what big money interests — be they corporations or unions — think they should.”
The Citizens Election Program is funded on a four-year cycle with monies from abandoned state property, rather than the general fund. It amounts to $11.75 million a year, which is 0.58 percent of the two-year budget.
“That is the cost, but it doesn’t answer the question whether it is affordable to Connecticut,” they wrote. “That question can’t be answered without knowing what is gained in return for the cost.”
They said the reason the program was adopted was because of the “rampant corruption, hundreds of millions lost in bad loans, unfathomable dollars wasted in sweetheart-deal state contracts, and legislation written to accommodate special interest lobbyists. Are we now in a position to afford that?”
Follow the Money, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes an accountable democracy, recently found that the average contributions from special interest donors to winning state candidates in Connecticut dropped an eye-popping 98 percent after adoption of the public funding program, from $2.1 million to $34,412 per election year.
That doesn’t account for independent expenditure groups, which can spend money for or against campaigns, independent of the candidate. In 2016, outside groups spent nearly $2 million in more than a dozen races in hopes of impacting the outcome and the balance in the Senate, which is now tied 18-18. But this type of uncoordinated spending is allowed under a U.S. Supreme Court decision and there’s nothing Connecticut can do to prevent it.
Regardless, as a result of the Citizens Election Program, campaigns in Connecticut are far less expensive than they are nationally.
Nationwide, according to Follow the Money, successful representative races have an average cost of $113,631 and state senate races cost around $262,511. Currently, the Citizens Election Program requires state representatives to raise $5,000 in small donations from 150 residents in their district in exchange for a campaign grant of $28,150. State Senators must raise $15,000 from 300 residents in their district in exchange for a $95,710 grant.
“The alternative to clean elections financing is the old way of doing business: ever-increasing contributions limits, with power stripped from electors and returned to wealthy contributors who can buy access,” the five commissioners wrote.
They said most Connecticut citizens would be unable to afford a Senator’s request for $1,000 for their exploratory committee, $1,000 for the general, and another $1,000 if that Senator has to primary.
But that’s what they assume a Senator who wants to run a competitive race would have to ask under the system proposed in the budget Malloy vetoed.
“It would be a race to the bottom, without brakes,” they wrote.