A year ago, Beth Rotman, who helped create Connecticut’s public financing system, was asked whether it resulted in better governance. On Thursday, she shared her answer in a 28-page report released by Common Cause.
Before the Citizens Election Program was established, nearly half of the $9.3 million raised by candidates came from lobbyists, PACS, and other entities. In 2018, 99% of the donations received by state legislative candidates came from individuals.
It was a big shift, but did it really make a difference in how Connecticut operates.
Rotman said a lobbyist from a prominent firm told her they would meet with legislative leaders and discuss how much money their clients were willing to give candidates.
“Some lobbyists felt it was a shakedown and wanted a shower afterwards. I walked out with a sense of relief because then I understood the expectations of me and my firm, and I could help my clients,” the unnamed lobbyist in the report says.
The $20,000 the lobbyist promised to deliver got them access.
“At the end of the session, we would be asked what we needed. I knew I could ask for five or six bills that they would try to get in the budget implementer,” the unnamed lobbyist told Rotman in January.
Rotman said the public financing system made it possible for lawmakers to return $24 million per year in unclaimed bottle deposits back to the public and away from the wealthy special interests. She said when anyone says they can’t afford public financing, she reminds them they are already paying for it with legislation that doesn’t serve the public’s interest.
In 2007, the “bottle bill” vote struck many veteran lawmakers, reformers, activists, reporters and members of the public as remarkable. Many still cite this vote as the singularly most powerful evidence that public financing can lead to better governance.
Rotman also cited the paid sick leave legislation as a law that might not have been able to withstand attacks from business interests if not for public financing.
“The state’s paid sick day law is ultimately a testament to what happens when the debate shifts, and wealthy interests lose their stranglehold over policy discussions,” Rotman wrote in the report. “Freed from reliance on large checks from the state’s lobbyists and chamber of commerce, state elected leaders were able to focus on the needs of more voters, starting on the campaign trail and continuing in office.”
Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn who worked to pass Connecticut’s law said: “Opponents of small-dollar donor laws make them sound like a bad use of taxpayer dollars, when in reality the savings not only pays for the cost of CEP, but frees up tens of millions more that can be used for other priorities, saved, or returned to the people.”
The program, according to Rotman and the report, opened the door for a new generation of elected officials to fund their campaigns with donations as small as $5 from the people who live in their districts. In its first 10 years, the small-dollar donor program more than paid for itself by closing a corporate giveaway, according to the report.
Before the launch of the program in 2007, there were 53 female members of the General Assembly out of 187 seats, holding just 28% of the seats. This jumped to 59 female members in 2008, with 51 women in the House and eight in the Senate. This 2008 number was the peak for female legislators until the last General Assembly election in 2018 when 63 women were elected to serve — 52 in the House and 11 in the Senate — showing steady gains during the decade of citizen-funded elections, up to 33% of the legislature and climbing.
Former Senate Minority Leader John McKinney didn’t vote for the legislation in 2005, but he told Rotman that he didn’t realize at the time how beneficial the program would be for Republicans, who are the minority party in the state.
He said it “enables you to run candidates in districts even where the registration numbers are overwhelmingly in favor of one party or the other and get that message out.”