Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo

HARTFORD, CT — State election regulators decided Wednesday that it’s not their place to decide whether public campaign funds can be used to cover childcare expenses.

The all-male State Elections Enforcement Commission voted unanimously Wednesday on a ruling that says privately raised campaign funds may generally be spent to pay for childcare costs, but candidates participating in the landmark Citizens Election Program can not spend any money on childcare once they qualify for the clean election grant.

Caitlin Clarkson Pereira, a candidate for state representative in 2018 who appealed the initial ruling, said she’s “frustrated and disappointed” by the decision.

“They absolutely punted,” Clarkson Pereira said. “Nobody put forward a bill” that would address the issue this year and at this point it’s too late in the legislative process to introduce any legislation.

Clarkson Pereira said the public comments, especially from Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz and her staff, outlined a path for the commission to reach a different conclusion.

In a letter to the commission, Bysiewicz said she was prepared to advocate for legislative changes, but “the SEEC has sufficient legal authority to determine that such expenses are permissible from the CEP fund under the existing statutes and regulations.”

She said necessary childcare expenses as a result of campaigning are not voluntary like the cellphone bill, clothing, tire replacement, or a trip to Amsterdam, which the SEEC cited as “personal expenses” that don’t qualify under the program.

“Women make up 51 percent of Connecticut’s population but only make up 29 percent of the Connecticut General Assembly,” Bysiewicz said Wednesday after the ruling. “While unintended, the current policy has a discriminatory effect against women and caregivers, and is an impediment to public service. The SEEC should have taken the recommendation of the Federal Elections Commission and changed its draft ruling to acknowledge that certain child care expenses do, in fact, directly further a candidate’s campaign for office, consistent with existing law.”

Gov. Ned Lamont called on the General Assembly to send him legislation that would allow childcare expenses to be covered by the program.

“We should be doing more to encourage women to run for office, and that is why I am urging the General Assembly to fix this wrong,” Lamont said. “Send me legislation clearly stating that childcare is a permitted campaign expenditure, and I will sign it into law.”

Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, said she would work “to ensure that language is put in a bill that will state that childcare is a permitted campaign expenditure.”

Clarkson Pereira, who brought her four-year-old daughter, Parker, to the meeting Wednesday, said she has not ruled out appealing the decision to Superior Court.

“This is about more than just mothers being able to run on a more level playing field, it’s about families in general,” Clarkson Pereira said. “If we want representation in Hartford based on what the people of Connecticut look like and we say that’s a really big priority, then we need to take action and we need to remove roadblocks.”

Following the meeting, which included only five minutes of public discussion, SEEC Executive Director Michael Brandi said this issue should be debated by the legislature because there are more details that need to be addressed regarding dependent care.

“We just believe it’s a further discussion that has to be had by the legislature. We’ve answered as much as we can answer under the declaratory ruling,” Brandi said.

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo

SEEC Commissioner Stephen Pinney said they don’t have the authority to change their regulations. He said doing that is a “long, convoluted, lengthy process.”

He said the easier route would be for the legislature to address it.

“Sending this recommendation to the legislature would be faster,” Pinney said. “It would be open and public.”

Clarkson Pereira may not have won her race for state representative, but she found a lot of support for this issue.

“Do politicians sit on the floor?” Clarkson Pereira asked before sitting down with Parker and answering questions from reporters.

Aside from Bysiewicz, Federal Election Commission Chair Ellen Weintraub wrote a letter of support. She said childcare expenses are covered under her reading of Connecticut’s regulations.

She said the CEP is required to “directly further” the candidate’s campaign for office.

“It is a truism that the most valuable and scarce asset of any campaign is the candidate’s time,” Weintraub wrote. “Campaigns go to great lengths to maximize the efficiency of the candidate’s use of her time, and to free up as much of a candidate’s time as possible to directly further the campaign. Drivers race candidates from event to event. Meals are skipped. Sleep is forgone. Jobs are neglected. Spouses and significant others are virtually abandoned for months on end. All in the name of freeing up the candidate’s time for the campaign. But if candidates are parents to one or more small children, they must provide care for those children, a time-intensive obligation that they may not ignore.”

Federal campaign laws allow candidates to use campaign funds for campaigning.

“You still can’t use campaign funds for babysitting on date night,” Weintraub noted. “But if those funds are spent on childcare to expand the time that candidates are available to campaign, those childcare expenses directly further the candidate’s campaign for office. In fact, dollar for dollar, childcare may be among the most efficacious expenses any campaign can incur.”

Clarkson Pereira said she would still be at a disadvantage if she used campaign funds for childcare because it means she would be unable to use that money for something like mail or other campaign communications. However, it’s something she’s willing to accept because it would give her another opportunity to run.