All Aboard For Campaign Reform

*Rell, leaders on record in support

By Mark Pazniokas, Courant Staff Writer

Senate Democrats, after two glum days watching Gov. M. Jodi Rell and Republican legislators run away with the Democratic bedrock issue of campaign finance reform, got into the game Friday.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, belatedly embraced Rell and Senate Republicans for dropping the GOP's opposition to public financing. He promised support.

"We welcome them to the fight, the fight for complete public financing, as we discussed at the beginning of this session," Williams said. "It's the right thing to do."

Williams and the Senate Democratic majority immediately upped the ante, pledging to craft a proposal that would include a sustainable source of funding.

Public financing is estimated to cost as much as $30 million in an election year in which the legislature and all statewide constitutional offices are up for election. It could cost as little as $10 million for legislative races alone, advocates said.

Legislative elections are held every two years. The governor and other statewide constitutional officers hold four-year terms. The next statewide election will be in 2006, but the public financing plan under consideration would not take effect until 2010.

Rell has not explained how she would pay for public financing of all state offices, and has proposed deferring the difficult question of money until next year.

"For whatever reason, on the Republican side they have not identified a funding source for this," Williams said. "We will identify a public financing funding source."

Williams spoke at a press conference outside the Senate chamber, flanked by most members of the Senate Democratic majority. His comments ended an awkward 36 hours in which the Democrats seemed adrift.

"I was quite frankly stunned at the complete reversal by the Republicans," Williams said. "They have vehemently opposed public financing in the past."

Williams and other Democrats said they struggled with trying to decide if Rell's reversal was genuine - or a ploy to embarrass Democrats and derail their reform plan.

"I have to say I still have those doubts," Williams said. "But you know what? Let's plow ahead and see if we can get something done."

The governor and every legislative leader are now on record as being either supportive of, or open to public financing, but reform advocates worried that some of the key players may be more interested in political gain than actual legislation.

"At the end of the day, people in Connecticut are going to measure success by what is enacted, not what everyone is talking about," said Andy Sauer of Common Cause.

Rell's proposal - she will accept public financing if legislators agree to ban or restrict various forms of special interest money - became widely known Wednesday morning.

House Democrats, after initially voicing suspicion of Rell's sincerity, announced that afternoon they would work with the Republican governor.

Senate Republicans, even though some were privately furious with Rell's abandonment of what had been Republican orthodoxy, also pledged their support.

On Thursday morning, Rell's senior aides began discussing how to craft a bill with House Democrats and House and Senate Republicans. No Democratic senator attended, though a staff member monitored the talks.

By evening, after William's press conference, Sen. Donald J. DeFronzo, D-New Britain, joined the talks in the second-floor conference room outside the office of Rell's chief of staff, M. Lisa Moody.

Rell welcomed the Senate Democrats.

"I am pleased that Senate Democrats have agreed to join the growing bipartisan coalition that is embracing the bold proposal I offered for genuine campaign finance reform," Rell said. "There are only a few days left in the session, but I am optimistic that an agreement may be reached to give Connecticut the most comprehensive campaign finance reform in the nation."

Her spokesman, Dennis Schain, said Rell was willing to consider including a funding mechanism in a reform bill.

"If we can find a fair and dependable funding mechanism, it's certainly a topic worth pursuing," Schain said.

Advocates of public financing said any funding source must be self-sustainable; otherwise the legislature can kill the program by failing to appropriate money.

Massachusetts voters approved the public financing of campaigns years ago, but the legislature never agreed to fund it.

Jeffrey B. Garfield, the executive director of the State Elections Enforcement Commission, said resolving the source of funds now was a reasonable demand.

"It gives the public assurance that the legislature is really committed to seeing the public financing program through. So I agree that would be the preferred method of addressing this," Garfield said.

In the first day of negotiations, Senate and House Republicans made clear they were not entirely in agreement with Rell.

The governor is willing to delay implementation until 2010 as a price for what would be the strongest campaign finance bill in the nation, but GOP lawmakers want some Democratic concessions next year.

Senate Minority Leader Louis C. DeLuca, R-Woodbury, said his caucus's support was contingent on Democrats agreeing to ban contributions from lobbyists and state contractors and to restrict political action committees in 2006.

The Republicans also want to immediately close a notorious loophole, a provision that allows corporations and other businesses to give lawmakers money by buying space in campaign ad books.

House Minority Leader Robert M. Ward, R-North Branford, said he wants similar concessions next year in return for the public financing of legislative races in 2008 or 2010.

"If they want public financing in '08, it should be easy to give up special interest money in '06," Ward said.

Reform advocates from Common Cause and other groups watched the jousting, trying to determine who was more interested in finding reasons to kill the bill.

"Are they really off the bill over this little stuff?" asked Karen Hobert-Flynn, a member of Clean Up Connecticut, a coalition of reform advocates.

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