Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie
Former Gov. M. Jodi Rell (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie)

NEW BRITAIN, CT – The person who most credit for reforming Connecticut’s campaign laws 12 years ago endorsed a proposal to increase qualifying donations from $100 to $250 for clean election candidates.

“I think that’s fair,” former Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell said at a forum at Central Connecticut State University. “But, I’d like to see it stay there (at $250) for awhile.”

Currently to obtain public financing, candidates must demonstrate grassroots support by raising – $5,000 for a House candidate and $15,000 for a Senate candidate – in no more than $100 increments.

But in the budget passed Thursday by the House and the Senate, that $100 ceiling was increased to $250. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy would still have to sign it for it to become law.

It was one of several smaller changes to the program that came out of the bipartisan budget compromise. While Republicans had proposed completely eliminating the Citizens Election Program as part of the budget Malloy vetoed in September, the program created in 2005 was funded as part of the compromise budget.

In addition to increasing the $100 donation ceiling to $250, the legislation also puts a one-year cap on election investigations instead of an open-ended time period.

The legislation requires staff to conduct a preliminary investigation of any allegations within 14 days; and, requires the staff to docket a complaint for a probable cause hearing by the commission for any complaint that it is unable to resolve within 45 days after receipt.

Cutting the investigations to one-year is a concern of Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause.

The shortened time period “would guarantee less accountability over these funds and encourage unscrupulous individuals to play beat the clock around investigations,” the coalition said.

Michael Brandi, executive director and general counsel of the State Elections Enforcement Commission, who was at the CCSU forum Thursday, reserved remarks about the change.

“We’re happy the program remains in effect and we’ll be reviewing the rest of the language,” Brandi said. “I haven’t seen the actual language inside the overall bill yet so it’s difficult to make more of a comment right this second.”

Thursday’s forum focused on the Citizens Election Program, which according to proponents, became the nation’s most comprehensive, publicly financed campaign system.

The law establishing the program was passed after Rell’s predecessor, John G. Rowland, resigned from office in 2004, during a corruption investigation. He later pleaded guilty in federal court to a one-count indictment for conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, mail fraud and tax fraud.

In 2014, Rowland was indicted on seven counts for his role in an subsequent election fraud case. He is currently serving his sentence in a minimum security prison in Pennsylvania, awaiting early release slated for May of next year.

Rell said one of things people forget is that she wasn’t initially in favor of campaign finance reform.

“It’s taxpayer money, we’re not going to use taxpayer money to fund candidates’ brochures and their little twist off top things that you get from every candidate, or pencils or flyers of whatever. No, we’re not going to do it,” Rell told the audience.

“And then we started to see more and more and more influence of money,” Rell continued. “And I remember as lieutenant governor thinking this bill comes up every year. We’re going to be dealing with this, why don’t we really put together a group and talk about it. Well it didn’t materialize.”

Rell went on: “When I became governor, there was more and more push to say let’s do something. Let’s literally do something about the influence of money in campaigns.”

But Rell said there were still obstacles and it took a special session of the General Assembly, that she called, to finally push the landmark legislation through.

The former governor said there are other reasons she believes public financing is a system that needs to be championed.

“Asking for money is probably the worst thing that any of us have to do,” Rell said. She said a program that puts less of a burden on raising money allow candidates to focus more on issues facing the state.

She said “it’s also brought more candidates than ever” into the political arena.

She added she’s also proud of the fact that the public financing law has an impact on more than the “big races.”

Rell explained that it’s important that public financing impacts Senate and House races for General Assembly and not just contests such as races for governor.

Lastly, Rell suggested that a possible way to funnel more money back into the public financing system, is to put lower caps on the amounts of money that candidates who are running unopposed can raise – and spend.

“Perhaps some of those excess funds can be funneled back into the election program,” Rell said.