Campaign Reform Looms At Capitol

*Prospect has some lawmakers on edge

By Mark Pazniokas, Courant Staff Writer

The proposal to publicly finance campaigns is filling the state Capitol with exhilaration and dread.

Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell and Democratic lawmakers are daring each other to adopt the concept; if they come to terms, Connecticut will see radical change in how it elects its governor and legislature.

The true believers are ready to celebrate. Doubters fret they are about to ruin a good thing, a machine that returns incumbents to power with reliability and efficiency.

In the past two decades, the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate have perfected self-sustaining, permanent campaigns at the state Capitol, largely fueled by lobbyists and their clients.

The permanent campaigns recruit candidates and help with polling, direct mail and, of course, raising money, such as the $50,000 directed last year to one candidate competing for an open Senate seat.

Jonathan Pelto, a former lawmaker and state political director of the state Democratic Party, said the willingness of lawmakers to overhaul the system with public financing would be extraordinary.

"There are multiple generations of candidates who have found success in a system they are now being asked to destroy," Pelto said. "It would be the single most significant change in the way campaigns are run in more than 20 years."

If the legislature's incumbents voluntarily blow up their campaign money machine, it would be an act without precedent.

Only Arizona and Maine have extensive systems of public financing, but those systems are the product of referendums forced by citizen petitions, not legislation adopted by lawmakers.

The starkest example of legislative resistance to public financing can be found in Massachusetts: When Bay State voters passed a public financing initiative, the legislature simply refused to fund the system adopted by the electorate.

Sen. Donald J. DeFronzo, D-New Britain, one of the proponents of reform, said anxiety is high as legislators realize they may be asked in the next three days to re-invent campaigns with legislation still being negotiated and drafted.

"When you propose a total, cold-turkey shift of the campaign financing system, it sends shivers up the spines of all the incumbents and other participants," DeFronzo said. "Nobody knows where it's all going to go."

Will safe incumbents suddenly have strong challenges?

Will the reform revive the Republican Party, or simply make it easier for Democrats to be re-elected without special-interest money?

One thing is clear: Change will require the leaders of the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the House and Senate to cede to their candidates the vast power that comes with controlling the flow of centrally raised funds.

"This will be a very radical change," said House Minority Leader Robert M. Ward, R-North Branford. "The role of the parties and caucuses will be different."

In Arizona, according to Andy Sauer of Common Cause, the change helped bring a new crop of independent legislators who increased education funding in defiance of legislative leaders.

The legislation under consideration in Connecticut would establish public financing for all state offices: the legislature, the governor and the other statewide constitutional officers.

Candidates would qualify for public financing by raising seed money in small donations and pledging to abide by spending limits.

A candidate for governor would have to raise $250,000 to qualify for $3 million in public funds. Limits for House and Senate candidates are under negotiation. An early Senate version set limits of $30,000 and $150,000 for the House and Senate.

No funding mechanism has been publicly identified for the annual estimated cost of $10 million.

The governor, who made ethics and campaign reforms a priority after a corruption scandal forced her predecessor, John G. Rowland, from office, had been seeking a ban on contributions from lobbyists, state contractors and other special interests.

Rell revived and redefined the campaign reform issue last week after House Democrats announced the reform effort was dead without her leadership.

If Democrats agreed to her restrictions, she would drop her long opposition to public financing, a reform ostensibly favored by a majority of Democrats.

Senate Republicans quickly promised to drop their objections to public financing, under certain conditions.

House Democrats pronounced themselves open to the change Thursday. Senate Democrats, who still wondered if Rell was engaging in gamesmanship, agreed to work on the plan Friday.

Publicly, everyone was open to change. Privately, some legislators in both parties wondered if everyone knew what they were doing.

One Democratic lawmaker said, "I feel like we're speeding down hill - straight at a brick wall."

On Saturday, Rell's staff and legislators continued work on crafting an acceptable public financing bill before the session ends Wednesday.

"I really think they are very close," said Tom Swan, the executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group.

Sen. Mary Ann Handley, D-Manchester, said she believes the momentum is too strong to stop.

"What a revolution it will make in this place," Handley said. "I'm thinking of the insider power plays that go on here."

Handley said she referred to a Senate leadership fight in 2002. Senators who sided with a challenger found themselves cut off from caucus funds.

Others cautioned against overstating the independence of leadership that public financing might foster. Leaders still have the power to make committee assignments, include goodies in the state bonding package or schedule a vote for a bill.

"We're sitting here on a Saturday. Maybe 40 bills will be voted on before the session ends Wednesday," said Richard Foley, a lobbyist and former lawmaker and GOP state chairman. "How do you make sure your bill is one of the 40? Either you have strong personal skills - or you make sure you are part of the team."

Others said the importance of public financing is the independence it will foster from lobbyists.

"Right now, most incumbents raise lots of money, I'd say 25 to 70 percent, from Capitol insiders: lobbyists, the businesses those lobbyists represent and the heads of those companies," Ward said. "That will change."

In some years, caucus staff have invited lobbyists to meetings and assigned them fund-raising goals, legislators and others said. Individual legislators also rely on lobbyists and their clients.

"Right now, a candidate calls a lobbyist and says, `Hey, I need money for my campaign.' And the lobbyist says, `OK,' and the next day shows with five or six checks," said Rep. Christopher L. Caruso, D-Bridgeport, one of the reform sponsors.

"Through the use of public money, citizens will regain their legislators. Simple as that. There won't be any influence of lobbyist money, contractor money, political action committees," Caruso said. "The influence that is wielded through those relationships is tremendous."

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