Election watchdogs seek to curb special-interest dollars in state races

February 8, 2017 GMT

Election watchdogs are trying to shut a back door in Connecticut’s clean campaign law that allows banned state contractors and lobbyists to give money to candidates for state office, including governor.

But the proposed rules change by the state Elections Enforcement Commission has the major parties at loggerheads, with Republicans saying it wouldn’t be necessary if Democrats obeyed the law and Democrats accusing Republicans of obstructing efforts to improve compliance.

The commission says the traditional accounting system used by the parties enables special-interest money to co-mingle with other political contributions. The system relies on separate state and federal fundraising accounts, the latter of which can use state contractor and lobbyist dollars for congressional races and get-out-the-vote efforts.

But what happens when there’s an overlap between state and federal political expenditures? The commission’s solution is to create a “compliant account” that could be used for both and would be off-limits to special-interest money.

“It’s clean money in and clean money out,” said Michael Brandi, the commission’s executive director and general counsel. “We think we’ve made it easier for them to comply with the law.”

The compliance measure is part of a larger campaign finance reform package proposed by the commission that also puts a cap on how much financial aid national parties can render to state parties and eliminates taxpayer election grants for unopposed state candidates.

Jolted by a pay-to-play scandal that led to the resignation and imprisonment of Gov. John G. Rowland a decade ago, Connecticut created a public election financing program that banned state contractors and lobbyists from giving to participating candidates.

But that hasn’t always kept special interests at bay. Last year, the state election commission reached a record $325,000 settlement with the Connecticut Democrats over their use state contractor dollars in the 2014 re-election campaign of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Special interests have also found another vessel for their money: the Democratic and Republican governors associations, which are not bound by the state contractor and lobbyist ban. Both have accepted cash from contractors and lobbyists that was used to help their parties’ candidates.

“Why are you punishing everybody else because the Democrats decide to do what they want?” said J.R. Romano, chairman of the state GOP. “This is one of the most disturbing overreaches of bureaucratic nonsense.”

Democrats responded that they have already adopted the compliance measure as part of last year’s settlement.

“If J.R. believes that the Republican Party is being penalized for strengthening the Citizens’ Election Program in Connecticut, then I’m at a loss for words,” said Michael Mandell, executive director of the Connecticut Democrats.

Mandell’s comments come less than a week after Democrats announced that they had been cleared in a federal grand jury probe of the party’s financing of the 2014 campaign. He said he was reserving comment on the rest of the commission’s proposal, which is scheduled to be discussed during a Government Administration and Elections Committee forum at 2 p.m. Friday at the Capitol.

The GOP is also smarting over a proposed $100,000 cap for contributions from national parties to state parties.

“Why are they singling out state parties? Why not unions?” Romano said.

Architects of the proposal say that it strengthens the reporting requirements for independent political expenditures and increases the fines for nondisclosure, areas that good-government groups have identified as deficient in the current law.

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