Campaign finance laws changed in new budget
HARTFORD — Two little-known changes in the new state budget may make it easier for those in wealthier districts to run for the General Assembly while putting time constraints on state election regulators whose staffs in recent years have been targeted for reductions.
Common Cause Connecticut, the election watchdogs, and the League of Women Voters have joined in an effort to overturn the new laws, which raise individual contributions for legislative and top-of-the-ticket candidates to $250, instead of the $100 limit approved in the state’s landmark 2005 campaign-finance law.
Both groups are also asking incumbents and prospective General Assembly candidates to abide by the $100 limit during the 2018 elections.
Another new change puts the one-year limit on State Election Enforcement Commission investigations. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Tuesday signed the budget revisions.
Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause Connecticut, said the hike to $250 while retaining eligibility for the state’s voluntary public-financing program, means candidates in higher-income districts will be able to raise money quicker than those running in lower-income areas, such as the big cities of Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford and Waterbury.
The contribution hike was never the subject of a public hearing prior to its inclusion in the bipartisan budget that passed last month by veto-proof margins in the House and Senate.
Lower buying power
“This will be a big problem for challengers, who usually take longer to raise the qualifying thresholds,” Quickmire said in an interview. Those who reach the thresholds later in the campaign season could receive less from the Citizens’ Election Fund, putting them at a disadvantage on Election Day.
“They just randomly, one day, said to raise it from $100 to $250,” Quickmire said. “That is a problem. No conversation. No public hearing.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said following the Senate vote on the budget revisions last week that the $100 was increased because buying power has fallen since Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed 2005 finance reforms following scandals that rocked Connecticut — including the prison terms of her predecessor, John G. Rowland, Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, and former state lawmaker Ernie Newton of Bridgeport.
“They haven’t been adjusted since the program first went into effect,” Looney said. “So $100 doesn’t go as far as it did back then.” He said that in poorer districts the change might actually help candidates who can raise the higher amount from some people while accepting less than $100 from hundreds of others.
Carol Reimers, president of the Hamden-based League of Women Voters, said the organization’s 1,500 members are contacting their local lawmakers in attempt to overturn the law next year.
“At this point, we need some conversations to determine to best sort of action,” Reimers said.
Last week, Common Cause and the league attempted to persuade members of the House and Senate to rewrite the changes before they revised several sections of the budget. They failed on Tuesday in the Senate and Wednesday in the House.
Quickmire also took issue with the new, one-year limit on SEEC investigations.
“What lawyer who’s worth his or her billable hours is going to let anything happen before a year?” she said. “They can easily drag it out so their client gets off in a year.”
The state’s largest penalty, $325,000 from the Democratic State Central Committee, came as the result of as SEEC probe and Superior Court challenge that began in October of 2014 and stretched until June of 2016.
Earlier this year, Republican lawmakers offered budgets that eliminated the Citizens’ Election Fund, which can provide state Senate candidates up to $95,710 after they raise $15,000 in individual contributions. House candidates who raise $5,000 can receive $28,150 in the voluntary program. Gubernatorial candidates need to raise $250,000 to leverage $6.5 million. The public-financing program is supported by unclaimed property in the state treasury.
“Wealthy special interests want to defund the program because it gives them minor influence in our elections,” Quickmire said. “Then, regular people don’t participate.”
Michael J. Brandi, executive director of the SEEC, said Tuesday that about 70 percent of the agency’s cases are completed within the year.
“We’re really opposed to the one-year provision,” Brandi said in an interview, warning that the remaining 30 percent of investigations that go longer than a year may be crucial. “It will prevent the agency from investigating the most-serious cases.”
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