Connecticut's new campaign finance law similar to Maine's

Boston Globe
Press Clips
Susan Haigh

The Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. --Legislators passed sweeping reforms Thursday that make Connecticut's campaign finance laws some of the toughest in the nation, but opponents are already lining up for possible court challenges.

A portion of the law which provides for public financing of campaigns is modeled after Maine's Clean Election Act, said Jon Bartholomew of the Maine Citizen Leadership Fund, whose efforts helped to pass the pioneering state law nearly a decade ago.

"We were the very first state to offer full financing" of elections, said Bartholomew, adding that Connecticut's action shows that the idea is catching on. Arizona has a similar law and other states and cities have some measure of public financing.

Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell has promised to sign that state's legislation, which bans campaign contributions from lobbyists and contractors while implementing a voluntary public campaign financing system that affects all state races.

The law comes in the wake of a corruption scandal last year that sent former Gov. John G. Rowland to prison and led his former co-chief of staff and a major state contractor to plead guilty in federal court.

But some critics, hours after the bill passed early Thursday morning, claimed the legislation is unnecessarily restrictive in some instances. A Green Party official said the bill discriminates against third-party candidates.

"This whole business of creating two tiers is going to blow up in their face, which is maybe what they want," said Mike DeRosa, co-chairman of the state Green Party. "You can't create two distinct kinds of parties. We're locked out of the system because these folks want to stay in power forever."

The legislation requires third-party and petitioning candidates to obtain a number of signatures that equals 20 percent of the number of people who voted in the last election for the offices they sought, in order to qualify for the full public funding amount. That requirement is not imposed on the major parties.

DeRosa said that likely violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Green Party plans to discuss its legal options, he said.

In a gubernatorial election, the legislation could mean that third-party candidates would have to get about 200,000 signatures to receive the full public financing grant of $3 million, said House Minority Leader Robert Ward, R-North Branford.

"Is that fair? Is that a balanced process?" he asked during Thursday morning's debate. "It just keeps out independent and third party candidates."

Lawmakers said they put the requirement in the legislation to make sure public financing would go to legitimate candidates.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut is considering suing over the ban of lobbyist contributions and the requirements for third party and petitioning candidates. Lawmakers had dismissed suggestions from legal scholars that they allow limited contributions.

"I think it's overreaching and our legislature was given the option to include a provision that would have been much more sound constitutionally," Connecticut ACLU Executive Director Roger Vann said.

Lawmakers spent nearly 14 hours Wednesday into early Thursday debating the 120-page reform bill, which bans campaign contributions from lobbyists, their immediate families and state contractors and ends the advertising booklets used by campaigns to raise cash.

Keith Stover, a state Capitol lobbyist, said he believes legislators voted for the contribution bans because they felt they were doing the right thing. But, he said, they may not realize the ultimate ramifications.

"My overwhelming feeling is one of sadness," he said. "Legislators in good faith arrived at the conclusion that our political and governmental system had broken down to the point where people solely by virtue of the fact they register under our statutes to lobby are now prohibited from making any kinds of political contributions, advocating that someone else make contributions -- and my wife and children also can't give."

Rell said she and state legislators have heard warnings about possible court challenges of the lobbyist contribution ban.

"If there is a challenge, we will deal with it when the time comes," she said.

Yet Rell said the limits on third-party candidates may be something the Democrat-controlled legislature addresses when it reconvenes in February. The governor said she plans to offer a list of changes to the bill.

"It does have flaws and yes, we know that we need to work on those," she said.

For example, Rell said she is concerned about powers given to legislative leadership political action committees, which will have the authority to provide in-kind services such as polling and political consulting for candidates.

Leaders' PACS have also been at issue under Maine's clean elections law.

Also, Rell points to a provision that bans state legislators from accepting contributions from state contractors who work for the legislature, but not contractors working for any other part of state government.

Rell said she realizes some portions of the reform bill that have been criticized as loopholes by her fellow Republicans in the legislature were needed to gain enough votes to pass the far-reaching proposal.

Connecticut's legislature is the first to enact a statewide public financing program that affects lawmakers. Maine and Arizona both enacted programs through ballot initiatives. And national advocates have said the combination of public financing and contribution bans makes the state's campaign finance rules the toughest in the nation."I think we have set the standard," Rell said. "We are now a role model for the rest of the nation and I think Connecticut can be very proud of this bill."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Susan Haigh has covered the Connecticut statehouse and political scene since 1994.

On the Net: Maine Citizen Leadership Fund

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