HARTFORD, CT — A late-night strike-all amendment that passed the Senate would alter how the state election’s watchdog operates while also settling some outstanding election issues lawmakers have with the agency.
The House may take up the legislation today.
“No one is going to rush something through,” House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said in response to questions about the bill’s timing late in the session Wednesday morning.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said there are “frustrations with the elections commission,” but “we believe in the system that allows small donors from our districts to provide financing for our campaigns.”
A document prepared by the State Elections Enforcement Commission said there are few provisions in the legislation that don’t contribute to “the erosion of the campaign finance system.”
“With a few exceptions, this bill contains policies unmoored to the public interest, making it easier to get special interest money into CT elections, with less disclosure, and to get away with campaign finance violations,” according to the document.
The documents says the bill simply makes it easier for candidates to get “unclean money in CT races, misspend clean CEP funds, and avoid meaningful regulation.”
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said all four caucuses agreed on the legislation. He disagreed with the characterization of the bill by the SEEC.
He said all but the term limit for the executive director of the agency was discussed through other pieces of legislation during the session.
“I think everybody should have a term limit,” Fasano said.
The bill would require the executive director to be evaluated every four years and limit the reappointment to two terms or a maximum of eight years. The bill says beginning Jan. 15, 2021, it will require the SEEC to employ an executive director for a term not to exceed four years. At the conclusion of the term the SEEC may re-employ the director for an additional four years.
“I struggle with term limits,” Aresimowicz said, adding that term limits in the legislature, for example, could mean that members are gone before they have a full understanding of how the General Assembly works, leaving only staff with all the required expertise. “Again, I want to read the bill. I want to have conversations with the Senate President about why he thought they were important before I pass final judgment.”
The bill would also make some changes to how the Citizens Election Program works.
When a donor makes a contribution to a campaign now, the State Elections Enforcement Commission can say the donation and contribution form are “unfixable” and keep the money.
“They can’t tell me why it’s unfixable and then they get to keep the money,” Fasano said. “The SEEC has an incentive to keep the money.”
The money goes to the Citizens Election Program fund and not to the operations of the agency.
SEEC Executive Director Michael Brandi said “oversight is critical in managing a public financing program. We have to make sure we are protecting the public fisc and what they’re doing is watering down oversight over those applications and contributions.”
The legislation would also allow candidates to criticize or praise candidates who aren’t in a candidate’s race, but are on the ballot if it’s the governor, lieutenant governor, president and vice president.
In 2014, several Republican candidates for state representative and state Senate seats were scolded by election regulators for using former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s image in their mailings. Malloy was up for re-election that year and the candidates did not ask his opponent or the Republican Party to pay for any part of the mailings.
Former Sen. Joe Markley and Sen. Rob Sampson, who recused himself from a vote on this legislation last night, refused to sign the settlement agreement that essentially says they violated a State Elections Enforcement Commission opinion because they mentioned another candidate’s name in their campaign material.
The SEEC fined Markley $2,000 and Sampson $5,000 for failing to get Malloy’s opponent or their party to help pay for mailers attacking Malloy.
Markley and Sampson have consistently refused to settle because they disagree with the advisory opinion and believe free speech should prevail even when they’re receiving public funds for their campaigns.
Fasano said the legislation approved last night by the Senate would be retroactive, so the complaint against Markley and Sampson would disappear.
Fasano said he did not have a conversation with Sampson about the legislation before Tuesday.
“Neither Sampson or Markley ever called me, never talked to me about it, and never even knew about this portion of the bill,” Fasano said Wednesday.
Fasano said he still thinks there’s plenty of serious violations for the SEEC to investigate, but there are certain minor things about the current law that just don’t make sense.