CT lawmakers: Public financing, but not for third parties?

// Published November 29, 2005

Important news from Connecticut today, where the governor and legislature have been tussling over proposed legislation to set up voluntary public financing of state elections. Democratic legislative leaders apparently have come to an agreement that means a bill probably will soon go the governor.

One of the bill's features will be to discriminate against third party candidates, however. Showing the limits of their pro-democracy views, state legislative leaders want to make it almost impossible for non-major party candidates to obtain public financing rather than consider instant runoff voting. Apparently it's okay to have public financing for "fringe" candidates in major party primaries (people like Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman in his 2004 presidential run, for example?), but not in general elections because of the fact that we maintain a plurality voting system that is a disaster for accommodating voters having more than two choices.

We argue in an amicus brief filed in the Washington state case involving its blanket primary that instant runoff voting is the logical step there as well. Certainly San Francisco's experience with instant runoff voting (along with how it's worked in other nations like Australia) shows how plausible it is to generate majority winners in one round of voting - in the first citywide San Francisco IRV election this month, voter error again was extremely low (fewer than 0.4% overvotes), and we are confident that exit polls will show (just as they did last year) strong support among all kinds of voters for the new system over the old two-round system.

Below are excerpted paragraphs from the New Haven Register about the provision on minor parties, followed by the full articles. Also, here are links to:

- Rob Richie

Of note: But House Minority Leader Robert M. Ward, R-North Branford,... also said the complicated and apparently restrictive proposals for third party candidates to qualify for public campaign financing appear to be "unfair and possibly unconstitutional."

...and...

Minor-party and petitioning candidates would have great difficulty qualifying for public funds. A petitioning candidate would have to gather signatures from 10 percent of all voters to obtain a partial grant and 20 percent for a full grant.

"It's unfairly restrictive and quite possibly unconstitutional," Ward said. "It's a clear way to stop third-party participation in the electoral process."

But Democrats said the language was borrowed from federal election laws and the restrictions were necessary to prevent fringe candidates from collecting public grants.

Dems hail new reform plan Gregory B. Hladky, Capitol Bureau Chief 11/29/2005, New Haven Register

HARTFORD - Democratic legislative leaders claimed Monday they have a new and "historic" campaign finance reform plan that they will be able to push through the General Assembly this week and get the governor to sign.

But Republican lawmakers immediately questioned the plan"s failure to ban special interest contributions for the 2006 elections, the constitutionality of its restrictions on public financing for third party candidates, and the lack of controls over some union campaign activities.

State House Speaker James A. Amann, D-Milford, insisted Democrats are ready to pass the public campaign financing legislation this Wednesday without GOP support, even though rank-and-file Democrats haven"t yet seen the bill. Democrats refused to release copies of their new reform bill, which they say includes both public financing of state and legislative campaigns and bans on most types of special interest contributions.

Amann said he believes Rell "will sign the bill" despite the objections of her Republican legislative allies and her previous insistence that a ban on at least some special interest money be put into effect for the coming election.

Rell issued a statement indicating that she may be able to support the Democrat"s proposal, but wants to see all the details.

"Of course, they don"t have a bill yet and I must review the actual language to make certain that everything they say is in there is actually in there," Rell added. "From what I"ve been told, it sounds like a bill that meets most of my requirements."

Rell is ready to accept a delay in prohibitions on contributions from lobbyists, state contractors and other special interests until after the 2006 elections because fund-raising for those campaigns has already begun, according to the governor"s chief spokesman, Judd Everhart.

In addition, Rell said she "will work hard to get as many votes as possible � from both sides of the aisle," if the measure "meets most of my requirements."

"There is no legitimate reason to veto this bill," insisted state Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven. "This will be a historic week in the state of Connecticut," he added, saying the legislation "will become a national model" for election reform.

The Senate"s top Democratic leader, Sen. Donald E. Williams Jr. of Brooklyn, Conn., acknowledged that the new Democratic measure "is not really a compromise." He said the ban on special interest money must be accompanied by the start of public campaign financing to work "in the real world."

But House Minority Leader Robert M. Ward, R-North Branford, warned the proposal "seems to create a huge loophole for in-kind contributions from union (political action committees)." In-kind services are such things as volunteers manning phones and helping candidates go door-to-door.

Ward also said the complicated and apparently restrictive proposals for third party candidates to qualify for public campaign financing appear to be "unfair and possibly unconstitutional."

He also questioned the Democrats" reluctance to release the actual legislation. "Whenever they hide a bill, there"s a reason for it," he said.

The Democratic proposal does place new restrictions on so-called "unlimited" political action committees. But it continues to allow each legislator to have one PAC, provides for three "caucus PACs" for each party in the House and Senate, and allows such PACs to provide a variety of different "in-kind" services to candidates without restrictions.

Democrats said money for public campaign financing would come from the approximately $20 million a year the state now receives from unclaimed property and assets that revert to the state after a certain period. That money is now used for the regular state budget and Republicans questioned how it would be replaced.

Closing In On Election Reform: Top Democrats Back Public Financing Plan By MARK PAZNIOKAS and CHRISTOPHER KEATING, Courant Staff Writers November 29 2005, Hartford Courant

House and Senate Democratic leaders have agreed on sweeping campaign-finance reforms that will be put to a vote Wednesday, potentially ending a stalemate that has dominated Connecticut politics since June.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and House Speaker James A. Amann, D-Milford, pledged for the first time Monday to gather enough votes from majority Democrats to pass and send a reform bill to Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell by week's end.

The bill would ban campaign contributions from state contractors and lobbyists and create a voluntary system of publicly financing campaigns for every state office, beginning with legislative races in 2008 and contests for governor and other statewide offices in 2010.

"On Wednesday," Amann said, "history will be made."

No legislature in the nation has been willing to adopt public financing - which is intended to increase competition for legislative seats as it lessens the influence of special interests - for its own campaigns. Voters in Arizona and Maine have passed public-financing laws through petitions and referendums.

Rell and legislative Democrats have sparred over campaign finance reform most of the year, but the governor signaled a willingness Monday to embrace the measure - if a summary released by Democrats accurately describes the legislation.

"It's a win for all of us if we can get a bill that is appropriate and that everybody can agree to," Rell said.

House Minority Leader Robert M. Ward, R-North Branford, and Senate Minority Leader Louis C. DeLuca, R-Woodbury, were not as sanguine, though the quick vote called by Democrats gives them little time to mobilize opposition.

Williams and Amann announced their agreement with great fanfare, appearing before television cameras with Lt. Gov. Kevin B. Sullivan, the House and Senate majority leaders, and reform advocates who seemed willing to believe that passage was imminent after numerous false starts.

"This proposal, if enacted, would represent the strongest set of campaign finance reforms ever passed in the nation and put Connecticut at the forefront of states with meaningful campaign finance reform laws," said Andy Sauer, executive director of Common Cause of Connecticut.

Legislators said the system would cost an estimated $16 million annually, providing public grants to qualified candidates ranging from $25,000 for House races to $3 million for a gubernatorial general-election campaign. The Democratic plan would create a special election fund, paid for with revenue the state now collects from unclaimed property.

Democrats and Republicans who opted to participate in the public-financing system would qualify by meeting financial thresholds that demonstrated public support.

To qualify for $3 million, a candidate for governor would have to raise $250,000 in increments of $100 or less, with 90 percent of the money coming from within Connecticut. No money would be paid until a candidate qualified for either a primary or general-election ballot, but the rules for exploratory committees would be liberalized to allow early campaigning.

Minor-party and petitioning candidates would have great difficulty qualifying for public funds. A petitioning candidate would have to gather signatures from 10 percent of all voters to obtain a partial grant and 20 percent for a full grant.

"It's unfairly restrictive and quite possibly unconstitutional," Ward said. "It's a clear way to stop third-party participation in the electoral process."

But Democrats said the language was borrowed from federal election laws and the restrictions were necessary to prevent fringe candidates from collecting public grants.

Joseph Brennan of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association said he feared that the legislation, by barring lobbyist and contractor contributions, would erode the influence of business at the General Assembly. The legislation did nothing to restrict the ability of labor unions to influence campaigns by arranging for volunteers and other in-kind contributions, Brennan said.

The attention paid to details such as minor-party candidates and the competition between business and labor are signs that legislators and lobbyists are finally taking campaign finance reform seriously.

On the last day of the regular legislative session in June, the House and Senate passed competing campaign finance bills, a maneuver that allowed a majority of legislators to vote for reform knowing that passage was impossible.

Rell revived the issue, creating a special bipartisan study group this summer and then calling the legislature back into special session in September. But passage seemed unlikely until Monday.

Williams had been meeting with senators for weeks to line up support, but Amann was widely seen as reluctant to push his caucus toward legislation that would remake election laws under which Democrats have thrived, winning nearly two-thirds of the seats in both chambers.

Passage requires 76 votes in the House and 19 in the Senate. By Amann's own count nearly two weeks ago, fewer than 60 of the 99 House Democrats were leaning toward a finance bill.

One question is whether Amann, who frequently defers to the will of the majority, will exert the leadership necessary for campaign reform's passage.

The reform bill almost certainly would weaken the influence of the House and Senate leaders, who use political action committees to funnel lobbyist donations to rank-and-file members, often earning their loyalty.

Under current law, those PACs can make unlimited contributions.

By banning contributions from lobbyists and contractors, instead of restricting them, the Democrats bowed to a demand by Rell. A complete ban, however, is likely to be challenged in court as infringing on lobbyists' and contractors' free-speech rights.